I am a victim and I feel guilty: This is for you, Reem.

Reem Abdel-Razek, this is for you, in honor of your supreme struggle and your vast determination. I love you, sister-in-arms:

We feel guilt that it takes us a long time to ‘get over’, to process unspeakable trauma and violence.

We feel guilt being around our colleagues and friends because we are so easily triggered, intense, moody, self-absorbed, disconnected, because we are so unstable. We tend to closet ourselves away, to hide, to withdraw because of this.

We feel guilt that we can’t just fix ourselves now that the worst is over and things are better.

We feel guilt for being unhappy when our whole lives have been wrought with tragedy.

We feel guilt that others are made uneasy, bothered, by our severe pain, consider.

We feel we do not deserve to be, do not belong among other people.

We need dire help with such frequency that we begin to view our entire existence as an imposition.

We feel guilty with how frequently we fail, don’t show up, don’t complete assignments on time, how often our minds hold us hostage and make us sick, how consistently we are incapacitated, and how many apologies and excuses we have to keep on making to everyone around us, how much like imposters we feel, because is it even possible for someone to get sick THAT often?

It doesn’t even matter that we’ve beat incredible odds, that we’ve accomplished incredible things, that we are smart, dedicated, hardworking, giving, and strong.

It doesn’t matter, my dear Reem, that you spoke up against the oppressive with courage, strength, determination, though you suffered costs no human should suffer. It doesn’t matter that you escaped, saved yourself, and now face the terrifying possibility of being sent back. It doesn’t matter that, though you are weighted down with mortal grief, you take stride after stride with self-betterment, a new life, healing, and championing human rights in mind.

Except for, it does matter. You inspire. When I look at you, I lose all ability to can :)

But still we feel guilt that parts of our communities are BOTHERED at us for being that type of person that formed and shaped herself in response to severe injustice and trauma.
We feel guilty for being JUDGED by people who have no idea what it’s like to live the kinds of lives you and I have lived.
People who cannot fathom what it does to a person.
We feel guilt for being judged for handling our burdens–ours–is if those who judge us can comprehend their weight.

And you know what? FUCK THAT NOISE.

But we also feel guilt because we feel that we are alone– that nobody else feels this way, that it is not normal, acceptable to feel this way.

But you are not alone, Reem. I am here with you.

Nor are you, reader, alone.

If you are a victim of trauma, repression, suppression, violence, depression, or mental illness and you feel these ways, I invite you to comment, raise your hand, in support, solidarity, together.

You are not alone. This is okay. You are not alone.

With love.

-Marwa

 

The bigger lies you’ve been told in denial of Muslim women’s oppression

wild

 

I’ve apparently come across this article a few months late. It’s a piece in which a white Western woman, Lauren Rankin, attempts to make the case that it is not Islam that contributes to misogyny and oppression of Muslim women. It is instead patriarchy, and characterizing Islam as a violent, misogynistic religion only contributes to racism against Muslims.

I read this in almost sheer amazement, and floundered through feelings of disbelief, hurt, and frank incredulity at the flimsiness of some if its claims. What struck me the most, however, was that this article was clearly written in goodwill with the desire to protect Muslim women from being racialized and attacked at heart. And I found this, to be truthful, quite ironic.

I’d like to break down some of the most problematic things I found in this piece, and try to present them within the context of the same goals Rankin has in mind: feminist ones, preserving and protecting women’s rights. It’s not some empty criticism, but an earnest evaluation given mutual goals.

I love my feminist allies and friends, but sometimes white Western feminists get things all backwards when they try to speak about the experiences of foreign women of color. Especially if they’re talking about people they’ve never met, places they’ve never lived, religious and legal and patriarchal systems they are unacquainted with, and make broad, sweeping generalizations about those systems. This is such an example. I understand that it might be driven by a reflection of the voices of Muslim women who freely choose and cleave to their religion and rail out against accusations that they are being oppressed–what I do not understand is how the experiences and insights of free women with agency and self-determination can speak to the experiences of their sisters who do not have such freedom–the woman who is free to practice Islam or not, to wear hijab or not–this woman does not speak for me or my ex-Muslim and Muslim friends who suffer under Islamic systems any more than a Western woman does.

To be clear, I applaud the instinct to try to reduce anti-Muslim hate and bigotry. It is the approach here that I think is utterly misguided and frankly dangerous. Rankin is attempting to object to Islam being characterized in a monolithic manner…by characterizing it in a monolithic manner, as something that never contributes to or causes misogyny, rape, and oppression of women in Muslim-majority countries. And while I myself am a champion of trying to oppose anti-Muslim bigotry, I believe the strongest and most compassionate way of doing this is by resisting the characterization of Islam as a monolith. What has happened here is that Rankin has engaged in what I say is a dangerous refusal to examine the very real influences and intermingling of religion and patriarchy in violence and oppression against women and children in Muslim-majority countries.

Her reasons seem to be noble: to prevent the stigmatization and racialization of women of color, of viewing them as oppressed and thus shorn of agency, freedom, the capacity to make decisions. However, denying the powerful and pervasive religious influences that cause women to be oppressed is not the way to do this. She herself falls into the same trap that she is condemning: she resists a reduction of Muslim women to a model of oppression–yet she herself seems to buy into the idea that claiming women are oppressed implies they are inadequate to challenge and critique that oppression. But an accurate characterization of Muslim women as oppressed does not bar them from being viewed as agential subjects who battle and engage with that oppression–we do fight back, in whatever ways we can, with a vengeance, and would even more strongly should more resources become available to us. And if such a characterization is accurate,  it is ultimately better to admit it and affirm the efforts of suffering women to challenge and make meaning of their circumstances (and the women speaking about their experiences DO need to be enabled, ex-Muslim and Muslim alike; I am lucky in my capacity to speak out and be heard).

And here are the reasons: Denying our oppression and pain is a much more dangerous brand of shedding us of our agency and voice than it would be to falsely claim that we are oppressed. I acknowledge that this largely relied on context and is thus arguable, but the voices we hear of Muslim feminists resisting the false characterization of their choices as oppression are the voices of women who do not need to be championed–they who are NOT oppressed, who DO have free choices, and who ARE free to assert their choices and their faith. They have the capacity to respond to bigoted, mistaken, unreasoned views against them–they don’t need white women to do it for them. And it’s true: many women in the West DO freely choose to cleave to Islamic practices and hijab up etc. (Many women in Muslim-majority countries claim that similar choices are free, but I will maintain that they are not fully free unless those women are free to choose a non-Islamic path without social, political, and legal repercussion– choosing your only safe and repercussion-free choice is not a choice). The capacity to have that free choice comes with an agency that makes it far less important to assert their ability to self-determine (an ability they largely have) than it is to highlight the struggles and challenges of oppressed women in patriarchal Muslim systems that do not have such freedom.

I feel a lot of what I find to be problematic with Rankins’ article boils down to the same model of argument and inquiry. In attempt to resist Islam being othered and viewed in a monolithic manner, it is called upon to be engaged with in a human manner, Muslim women listened to. However, the implicit suggestion is that once this happens, Islam will be revealed to be monolithic in an opposite way: that the Muslim woman will tell you what her reasons for hijab are and you will discover that it is not Islam that contributes to lack of agency in and oppression of women–as if those reasons and considerations and experiences cited by Muslim women are ever going to be the same, or at least thematically unified enough to reflect Rankin’s main point that Islam is not the problem when it comes to the oppression of Muslim women. Except many women born and raised and socialized of Islam have radically divergent stories that are not happy and do closely examine and challenge the Islamic influences of their oppression–what of the voices of those women? I tell the story of my fifteen-year struggle with forced hijab in the Middle East here–and it is radically different than that of the Muslim hijabi doing her PhD in Rutgers that  Rankin cites, quoting a line that nobody asks Muslim women what they think. Assuming they all think in a positive, free, affirming way about their religious circumstances is just as grave an error as not asking them to reflect upon their choices to begin with.

And I would argue that it is likely this assumption–that negative characterizations of Islam have no bearing on reality and are largely due to misunderstanding–that leads to Rankin making an argument such as the following:

Clearly, something is at play here, if that many women report being sexually harassed. I just don’t think that “something” is Islam. If it was, sexual harassment and rape would be limited to Muslim countries and communities. But as we well know, that is simply not true. Rape, sexual harassment, and violence against women are not isolated to a particular faith, but instead, they exist in every country, religion, and community that is patriarchal. The problem is not Islam; the problem is patriarchy.

It is clearly fallacious to claim that because misogyny happens in contexts, systems, and religions that are not Muslim, then Islam cannot be one cause of such misogyny. But I’d like to think that this is not exactly what Rankin is saying–I’d like to think that Rankin’s argument is not that an effect (misogyny and violence against women) cannot in practice have more than one cause (Islam among others), and that she is not simply falling into this fallacy. What I think she is trying to rather do is create parallels–by showing that similar effects occur in other contexts that contain religious elements but do not happen to be the effects of those religious elements but of a larger and more pervasive problem, namely patriarchy. Two points here:

1. I am confused at the attempt to characterize patriarchy as the problem of misogyny as if it is an outside discrete qualifier with one manifestation that can be added onto a variety of human contexts, instead of a system internally built and structured by the values, nature, and practices of those human contexts (cultural, religious etc). Patriarchy is not born of a vacuum, nor is it monolithic. Values of modesty, honor, chagrin, shame, tribalism, and family can contribute to patriarchy in one part of the world whereas individualistic, rentier economical models can contribute to patriarchy in other parts.  To suggest that patriarchy and Islam are separate in Muslim-majority countries, that they do not intertwine, influence, contribute to, feed into each other–I am unsure how that claim can be anything but devoid of substantial content, because what is the alternative source and fuel for a patriarchal system if not the values embedded in it and structuring it becoming institutionalized, as they are in places where Muslim presence is prevalent and strong enough to lead to its institutionalization.

2. Rankin tries to argue that misogyny and violence to women occurs in all sorts of religious and cultural contexts, and is not thus caused by them. Whether or not this is actually true is moot (for the record, I disagree that religious and political systems other than Islam don’t cause misogyny and violence to women), because it does not then follow that we can extrapolate that this is true of Islam. This is an inductive leap to be sure, so it is not wholly blind, but it is one that is based on perhaps creating false parallels as the basis for induction. The false parallel lies in Rankin’s insistence that Islam is no different from, not unique from other religious and political systems, no more violent than they are, so it should not deserve such forceful condemnation and scrutiny. Except she never backs this up. My argument is that it is in fact true that in general, most manifestations of Islam differ fundamentally from other faiths today, and must be dealt with on par with those differences. I wrote a long blog post justifying this claim if you care to look. At the very least in order to claim the opposite, Rankin must respond to the arguments and reasons for dealing with Islam in a unique manner, if not provide a positive argument of her own for why it in fact should not be done.

3. I believe the model of a simple cause-effect relationship between Islam and misogyny that Rankin takes issue with is one she fails to challenge with a more complex, robust analysis. She instead adheres to a very similar model, and replaces the word ‘patriarchy’ with the word Islam as the cause-effect explanation of misogyny, thus implying that the influences and circumstances of misogyny and violence against women can in fact be hashed in terms of a dynamic that simplistic–only not an Islamic one. She could have, instead of trying to find an alternative (seemingly) unrelated to Islam, ie patriarchy, tried to examine other ways in which Islamic beliefs, values, and practices might enable, contribute to, structure, influence, and otherwise entwine in a larger system of oppression and misogyny as a more complex, nuanced, realistic alternative than either ‘Islam causes misogyny’ or ‘patriarchy causes misogyny’. It would be ultimately more honest and broadly more semantically meaningful.

And this leads me to note: most ironically, Rankin calls for addressing the root problem of patriarchy and examining how and why it contributes to violence against women. Yet she herself makes no real attempt to examine the nature of either particular forms of patriarchy or Islam, or back up the claims she makes about them. She also provides no alternative explanation to the position that critique of Islam will only lead to bigotry against and racialization of Muslims. She does not consider that it may lead to active reform, to the voices of women of color being heard, to robust critiques of oppressive regimes of brown people by brown people, to the building of networks of emotional, material, and legal support for women and apostates seeking help, to positive publicity.

And let me get as anguished as I fucking deserve to be here–gosh, isn’t that astronomically important?  And let me get as personal as I fucking deserve to get here– I think her account is horribly, horribly uncompassionate to the plights of women under Islam who suffer from a system that institutionally oppresses them–an a far more structured and pervasive manner than a lot of free Muslim women in the west face from bigots. Perhaps she honestly believes that women like me and the hundreds of others I know do not or cannot exist, but fuck, I’d like her to face me, to face us, and tell us that the suppression, control, abuse, imprisonment, and torture we endure–justified via religious values and enabled by respected and established religious institutions–had and has nothing to do with Islam, and that our efforts at critique and discussion of them are detrimental lies.

My oppression is not a lie, Ms. Rankin.

-Marwa

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In (further) defense of the title ‘What it is like to be a Muslim woman’

I wrote a two-part personal account of my experiences as a Muslim woman, and they are experiences of horror, oppression, suppression, and pain.

I have titled both parts of this “What it is like to be a Muslim woman”.

In both pieces, I stressed that my experience is not presented as representative of Muslim experiences in general.  So how, why am I claiming this title? I provided some of my reasoning for it in Part Two, but I want to go back to this, because I think it is an important matter of responsibility for my decision.

And it is very much a decision, to label my accounts of pain, violence, and oppression by this title, “What it is like to be a Muslim woman”, even though anti-Muslim bigotry is a real problem in the West, even though there are plenty of warm, loving, positive, healthy, nurturing Muslim experiences.

It is a delicate decision burdened with responsibility given the social climate of anti-Muslim bigotry, my knowledge and experience, my goals. And I am driven to affirm it, to cleave to this decision, though I’ve been thinking and rethinking this title for months.

I decide to cleave to it because defection from and nonconformism to an Islamic ideal is actively leading to the suppression, stigmatization, delegitimatization and silencing of apostate voices such as mine on the basis of this very claim, that they have no right to claim Muslim experiences. Never mind that Muslim experiences constituted the entirety of our socialization, the actualization and politicization our lives, never mind that we actually grew up and lived in Muslim-majority countries and thus belonged to dominant institutions that were Muslim, a thing Muslims from/in the West cannot claim to have experienced and thus simply do not understand.

It is a decision based on the  struggles and incredible suffering I witness my ex-Muslim community in North America going through, many of whom are socially constrained into being closeted. It is based on my heartbreak every day listening to them trying to realize self-determination and escape the stigma of objecting to Islam. It is based on the invisibility of that struggle.

It is response to stories like mine being objected to time and again on the grounds that whatever motivations were at play in our oppression, they were not supported, influenced, or backed by Muslim ideals (let alone institutionalized mechanisms of religious oppression) at all and are just crazy anomalies or the results of the personal decisions of individual bad people.

It is in response to ‘Muslim’ or ‘Islam’ being treated as if it means one thing instead of thousands upon thousands of them, without focus on individual experience, on the individuation and multiplicity of its people and beliefs.

It is in response to the idea in somebody’s head that ‘Muslim’ means one thing that causes them to object to my calling my experience that of a Muslim woman.

Because I want to destroy that idea. Because that is the idea that leads to progressive and LGBTQ Muslims not being considered ‘true’ Muslims and their wonderful efforts denounced and discounted. Because it is the idea that allows people to ignore the manner and degree of religious influence in the oppression of people affected by Muslim people, countries, and social and legal institutions by calling it something else than ‘Muslim’.

It is in response to what I consider to be some misguided claims in the West that the most important or only real Muslim problem worth focusing on are matters of national security and terrorism rather than the treatment of Muslim women in Muslim theocracies. It is with deliberate intent to put the focus on Muslim women before putting it on white people or Westerners.

It is in short, a response to my assessment of which problems are most prevalent and weighty in the discussion of Islam by both its defenders and critiquers. Thus I will repeat my affirmation:

I insist on this title because of individuation—Muslims are separate, distinct, with individual characteristics, and they are not a brand–and individualism—because recognizing and esteeming personhood is paramount to any discussion of human experiences and human rights. Because of a refusal to use identity markers as excuses to lump people into fixed groups rather than considering identity markers to belong to individuals who reclaim them and revalue them in critical, honest ways.

When ‘Islam’ is not a monolith in practice, belief, or interpretation, when it is a disservice to real, organic human beings to treat it as such, when ‘Muslim’ can be an identity as widely varying as the faces of the women that carry it, as the beliefs of these women—then any and all of their stories are stories of what it is like to be a Muslim woman.

Because their religion and their culture belongs to them individually, and not vice versa.

I say again, because cultures belong to people, not people to cultures.

My story is always the story of what it is like to be a Muslim woman. And there is always another story, and it is always important.”

And while I realize there may be further considerations and objections to my decisions and approach, I don’t mean to be flippant in saying it’s likely I’ve already thought about them and deeply considered them, because this project is probably the most important thing to my values and my life’s work.

And it’s a complex subject, a delicate one, probably one with no ‘right’ answers but better or worse ones based on what we know, what we try to achieve, how much we can help vs how much we can hurt– and I’m on the inside of so much that is so complex and difficult. Part Two of ‘What it is like…’ is the work of months of deliberation on technique and approach and benefit vs detriment. I understand the reasons for reservations, the manners in which this is problematic–but I cleave to my decision to claim this title, because that is how my considerations have evened out, and I deeply believe in responsible, measured thought.

Relevant links to rhetorical approach in discussing Islam:

Four mistakes you make when you talk about Islam:

http://aveilandadarkplace.com/…/4-mistakes-you-make…/

How can we discuss Islam in better ways?:

http://aveilandadarkplace.com/…/how-can-we-discuss…/

Much love

-Marwa

PART TWO: What it is like to be a Muslim woman

For Part One, see here.

A defense and rationale for the title ‘What it is like to be a Muslim woman’ can be found here.

This was my smile. The realest one I had.

This was my smile. The realest one I had.

[Trigger warning: violence, abuse, abduction]

Some nights, I wake up from dreams of Lebanon, gasping and unsettled, and think, “I have keys.” It comes quickly, like a lifeline, this glimmering reminder that this is my life now, that I live in the United States and everything has changed—this knowledge settles into my brain anew and I can breathe again.

In those dreams, my brain frantically puts itself through terrors over-and-again, testing the walls, the phones, the windows, looking for ways out, testing every avenue and niche for survival in case the greatest danger my brain knows to my existence comes back one day in waking.

And I remember, relive, for those hours, what it was like.

What it was like to be a Muslim woman, the Muslim woman that I was.

Consider for yourself.

~*~

In those nightmares, you are an old, tightly-woven self, molded by adaptation, but not in ways that are healthy, that create spaces for growth .

You are a self that has learned to recognize dangerous sounds: the exact rhythm, length, and tone of every slipper as it slaps against tile in the halls and rooms of your house. Your self listens like an unceasing sonar, blipping in the background. It’s the way things are.When it comes, you recognize it immediately, without having to register the assessment.

The sound with the dipping, lingering, heavy slap is Baba’s, the shorter, sharper one Mama’s.

Your fingers thrust any suspicious thing—book or cellphone usually—into hiding spots you could find blindfolded.

Your fingers gravitate of their own will to inconspicuous places, to settle there—in plain sight on top of a notebook for instance—you do not touch your own hip, your collarbone, anything with curvature–you uncurl your legs and set them straight on the floor, straighten your back. All this unfolding and realignment within seconds, mechanical.

Your fingers know how to erase recent calls and message inbox content in your phone totally blind, beneath the covers or inside a pocket, and how to set your phone to silent thus too.

Your clothes at home are baggy, long, with sleeves to cover everything, even in summer. You adjust them over your thighs without thinking because your brain has memorized the things it must do to keep you safe.

Your sleep is light, semi-conscious too—you can sense the shifting body of your mother rummaging through your drawers at night, flipping through your books and notebooks. You can feign sleep through poking, prodding, pinching, sound while your body releases waves and waves of chemicals, your heart in your throat.

You think, now, of the adrenaline rush of a flight-or-fight response, that strange, liquid-metallic wave tingling over your body and settling into your fingertips—you think of how your body is awash with it so often, how it should not stun you when your nerves fire up and your brain lights up with anxiety and fear as you answer the clever, manipulative questions about your day on the car ride home, sift through the lies in your head, regulate your tone of voice and its casualness.

You think of a life lived with a body flaring up and down in panic and anxiety.

You are a body programmed to respond to the most delicate of stimuli.

You are a watcher. Even away from home, at work and at school, you are observing windows and doors and people on the streets, always watching, always wary, never knowing when an invisible emissary could be sent to monitor your behavior. You make mistakes, but make them less the more you learn.

The rooms with closed doors among trusted friends, colleagues, and professors are the safest, most glorious oases of warmth. You hole yourself up in them during most of your workday.

You never want to go home. Being away is respite.

But you must go home every day, because you do not own your body or heart. You do not own your life.

You are a self that trained itself to receive the intrusion of other bodies from the smallest of years, before ever understanding the concepts used to justify such intrusion: honor, modesty, shame, discipline. At that age, the reasons were less important than the lessons of escape and avoidance.

You watched there too, watched your six year old brother’s head pushed from a meaty palm and bounce off the corner of two walls meeting in a sharp corner, his small mouth frozen in shock, his hair matted in blood. You learned never to be caught standing in front of a corner because corners are sharp.

You learned that furniture low to the ground might have sharp corners too—coffee tables, nightstands—and they are tools to be used—stay close to the softer things.

Your muscle memory is imprinted with ten thousand ways to shift and move and tighten and relax to minimize pain and injury. They are as automatic as reflexes.

Your brain too, has learned—detach, detach, shut down, shut down, brace, brace, it will be over soon. You can enter lockdown in seconds when you sense it coming, when the shadow looming pins you to the wall before ever your skin gets touched.

You learn to dash your glasses off first and skid them away, out of bounds of the arena, so they do not break your face and hurt your eyes, so you do not lose your sight for a week or more until your need for proper vision is indulged.

You learn when to tighten your jaw and when to slacken it. You learned this young, first from watching your sister’s front tooth fall out of her suddenly unclenched jaw as her skull bounced against marble tile.

You learn to keep your hair tied tightly if it’s long enough, because pulling a ponytail hurts and breaks less than yanking and twisting at strands.

You lean in towards the hand that pulls your hair.

You sway out to shorten the distance and thus the force of blows.

You turn bonier parts of your body towards the flying fists and cracking leather, because they can withstand more.

You learn the best positions to sleep in to ease the bruising.

You shut off the lights in your brain and your heart, and wait, wait, wait for it to be over.

But it never is, because you must always be prepared for its possibility, must keep your muscles and your memory ready. Sudden, unfamiliar sounds and movements send you crouching and your forearms flying to guard your face—sometimes, rarely, when you are in public, and you dare someone to look at you with pity when you lower your arms.

~*~

Someone dubbed this my 'deer in headlights' look. I didn't see it at the time, but I do now.

Someone dubbed this my ‘deer in headlights’ look. I didn’t see it at the time, but I do now.

Living this way, with constant wariness, your body an automaton of mechanistic reaction to minimize harm—this is a very familiar narrative for abuse victims from all backgrounds, religious or otherwise. It is not exclusive to Islam. How, why, then do I claim it to be a Muslim experience?

The first, simpler answer: It is a (rather intertwined and complex) causal relationship. Islamic doctrine and various interpretations of it, Muslim cultural norms, uphold, define, and contribute to patriarchal values of honor, shame, discipline, punishment, obedience—all tied to strict codes of living that can be violated by reading, singing, talking, touching, eating, moving, wearing certain things or in certain ways. Bodily autonomy is not assumed a human right. Sexuality is a crime. Bodies are shameful or sinful or to be hidden. Women need guardianship and are expected to give obedience. These values constitute social structures and power dynamics—pervasive, institutional ones in most Muslim-majority countries—that enable and sanction the treatment of women and children in these ways. In some places, they even require it.

While this sort of life, this sort of treatment is not exclusive to social and family structures with certain patriarchal Muslim ideals, it is particular to them.

This life that I lived was only possible because of the religious and value systems of not only my family, but the society and culture and country that surrounded them. Because I lived in a country that refused to pass a law criminalizing domestic violence and marital rape due to protest from the two largest Shia and Sunni authorities in the country, based on religious grounds. Because I lived in a country where I had no legal recourse or opportunity to gain freedom or independence, where girls did not move out unless for marriage, where marriage legally required a guardian’s consent—all on religious grounds. Where—and I’ll come back to this—my attempt to leave home, hide, go off the radar resulted in my being tracked down and dragged home by Hezbollah, my subsequent imprisonment, torture, subjection to a virginity test–all overlooked and brushed over by people with the power to help me. All of this justified and sanctioned by patriarchal values of modesty, family honor, saving face—all inspire and derived from religious-cultural social codes.

But that’s not my main or most compelling reason for claiming a Muslim experience.

Let me tell you again—I insist on cleaving to this title, this description for those personal experiences of mine, despite widespread criticism of my title of Part One that it may be misleading, though I never claimed it to be representative.

I insist on this title because of individuation—Muslims are separate, distinct, with individual characteristics, and they are not a brand–and individualism—because recognizing and esteeming personhood is paramount to any discussion of human experiences and human rights. Because of a refusal to use identity markers as excuses to lump people into fixed groups rather than considering identity markers to belong to individuals who reclaim them and revalue them in critical, honest ways.

When ‘Islam’ is not a monolith in practice, belief, or interpretation, when it is a disservice to real, organic human beings to treat it as such, when ‘Muslim’ can be an identity as widely varying as the faces of the women that carry it, as the beliefs of these women—then any and all of their stories are stories of what it is like to be a Muslim woman.

Because their religion and their culture belongs to them individually, and not vice versa.

I say again, because cultures belong to people, not people to cultures.

My story is always the story of what it is like to be a Muslim woman. And there is always another story, and it is always important.

Consider, again.

You are a human being, a vessel of discord and dissent—you can live at the organism level learning and adapting and surviving, but survival is not a life, and your body cannot stomach it, and damages are sustained—they heal from your skin but bear down deep into your heart and mind and you lose bits and pieces of what it is to be human—a voice, a will, bodily and facial expression, hope, expectation. You gain what it is like to be a trapped, frightened animal—desperation, recklessness, hunting, hungry eyes. You live with a divisive spirit inside you that you force to be calm, as your lips and face and actions speak one set of values and identities and your scrabbling fingers hidden under covers in the dark of night, your swollen heart, your stashes of books and papers speak an entirely other.

You have planned your escape your whole life,  because it is that or die, since the life you have is no life. But your fear, dependence, ignorance and naiveté, your blindness to the pervasive power structure invisibly chinking in tiny tunnels you think you can access—that is your first undoing. You have much to learn, and with learning comes failing, and with failing comes punishment, distrust, the tightening of your bonds.

You can only afford to fail so much.

Your plans, over the years, become more careful, wary, structured, patient and difficult, and you lay them down only in your head—no paper trail, no verbal trail—and exercise them slowly, bit by bit, setting one tiny piece in place at a time over many years, sometimes twice or thrice over as you slip up and ruin what you’ve already set in place and must begin again. It is like a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle of thousands and thousands of pieces.

The finished puzzle forms a key.

~*~

There were stories you learned much later, years later, from friends trusting enough to confide in you, that you wish you had known before. Stories of a young self picked up by Hezbollah while walking on the street at night and blackmailed into revealing her identity and being driven home and handed to her father, because Shia girls do not walk at night for whatever reason, because there is an unspoken right of the Hezb to regulate and police its demographic. Stories of friends reporting sexual assault and being harassed where they stood in the police station, realizing they had no help and nobody to turn to even within the system that promised to give them justice.

If you had known those stories, you would have planned in a wiser way.

But you did not, and in the reckless, desperate state you were in, you planned less carefully. You were 18, finally, an adult (or so you thought), and you would leave. You spent weeks slowly and carefully gathering your own documents, hidden in your mother’s room. It was the second semester of your sophomore year in college and you dropped all of your courses while continuing to go to campus every day anyway. You requested and gathered transcripts, corresponded with the American embassy and found out you could get a new passport issued without having to provide the old.

But you were young and naïve, and you had no real plan for a new life after you left your old one, and what planning you had left traces. And you were young and trusting, and turned to people you considered friends, people who tap-tap-tapped at your protective shield, preyed upon your frightened dependence alone on the streets of Beirut, and you found yourself in their home in the southern suburb interlaced with Hezbollah networks and offices—and you were trapped in that net drawing nearer and nearer, and they brought your family into the place they promised to be safe, and you were driven home, to the most educational and horrific nightmare of your life.

Because of the deviance, the unthinkable audacity and daring of your escape, you were accused, suspected, your skin torn as you were interrogated to release your motivations—you must be pregnant, a prostitute, a spy—nothing else could explain such behavior–nobody did such things. They burrowed into your flesh for the truth when the truth is that the truth of your motivations–a desire for independence and humanity–was utterly incomprehensible to their value systems–no matter what you said, you were a stubborn liar and nothing more.

And when the Hezb men came back to check on the family situation, your pleas for help were silenced, and your uncle held his gun to your head until you pledged obedience to your father, who turned his back to you and called his brother a darling and hugged him before you, while the men of the Hezb circled your living room as if they were unseeing, like cyphers, chanting the Qur’ans in their palms in monotone.

Then the virginity test. It appeased your mother, who held your stiff hand with childish happiness on the car ride home, satisfied that at least the most important thing was intact, preserved—but it did not move your father.

You were whisked off to the police station, too, to close the missing persons case your mother opened in panic when she realized you were gone—and for a brief, foolish moment you saw hope when they questioned you in the back room. When you blurted out your troubles, begged them for help, you saw their eyes and shoulders harden with disgust, distaste towards your trembling body and its sins. They told you to go back home with your father, to be good, because there was nothing they could do for you.

And back home you went, where the flexibility of your body and mind were tested. You turned to the skills and mechanisms you had learned your whole life, withdrew into the shell of your body for warmth. You stopped speaking altogether soon, turning deeper and deeper inward, and let your body go soft and yield to the bodies imprinting upon it. You turned into a rag doll, a bit of cloth swept to and fro by forces much greater than you.

And then came the imprisonment, the isolation for weeks, bruises blending into dreams, dreams blending into memories, day and night indistinguishable.

Consider, consider.

Imagine it was winter, and the laundry room was tiny. Seven by seven feet squared, it was nearly filled with a washer and dryer, with a shower fixture on one wall and a small ceramic hole-in-the-floor toilet in one corner. The light switches for this room were outside, in the kitchen. It locked only from the outside.

The darkness was insurmountable, and the first night, you felt for the apron from the hook behind the door and folded it into a square to serve as a pillow. Crouched, in the dark, you sifted through the piles of dirty clothes from the bin the corner, sizing up each piece by touch alone, until you found a sweater heavy and large enough to cover you, and you continued to dig and rummage until you formed a little nest, patching the cold tile with clothing, measuring the clear floor space with your hands. In the days and eventually weeks that would follow, you would lose awareness of your body so deeply that you would no longer pick for the cleanest clothing to build nests and scrabble in the dark for the opening of that ceramic hole, caring about what to dirty with the streaks of blood and shit on your thighs and ass. You would no longer make little sleeping-corners and pockets of softness. But at the beginning, you did. You explored your space, those walls, what had become the narrowing of your entire world.

You found that if you wedged your feet in between the toilet and the dryer, you could lie flat on the floor, your head pushed up against the door at the other end. You huddled, with apron and dirty clothes, in the cold. You moved your head and limbs carefully. You found if you tilted your chin into your chest, and held your left arm against my stomach, the bruising eased. You closed my eyes, let your fingers run over my eyelashes.

You imagined your mother, father, brother, sister all asleep in their beds.

You could not get warm. Pushing the sweaters off of you, you stood up and felt your way around the washer to the dryer. You pushed the dial and felt it rumble to life beneath you. You stood hugging it, and felt the warmth it gave seep into your bones.

Too tired to stand for long, you lay back down, with your knees bent and legs pushed against the dryer.

The warmth coursed up your legs, and filled your torso with a rich mellow orange-marmalade sort of feeling—warm but a little bitter. You tried not to choke, and slept, slept, if only forever-

To wake in a bed in the American Midwest, gasping for air and hope that today would be the day you would be able to speak up and out, as witness, as testimony, as hope, and soon, soon afterwards, to tell the story of your escape.

-Marwa

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