Today is my ‘Muricaversary’, marking 2 years to the day from my landing in the US from Lebanon. Since this also marks my first ‘real’ post at FTB, I thought it would be fitting to publish a new version of the first essay that went viral on the old Between A Veil and a Dark Place. This piece won me many of my loyal readers and brought in hundreds of comments and messages from people who found that this piece spoke to them, resonated with them.
That’s not the only reason I want to re-issue this piece. This piece is iconic for me, in many ways. It marks the first time I was able to write about trauma as a Muslim woman with any measure of success. It is also grapples with the struggle to realize that things have actually changed, to come to terms with having autonomy and the right to self-determination–things I never thought I’d have to struggle to come to terms with. It is in that sense definitely a piece on Freedom. It is a piece of learning and growing, which is why I think it’s apt for today.
This is an edited, expanded, and more philosophical version of the original essay. You can also find the new version in print at 580 Split, which is sold online and in Bay Area bookstores. I also later wrote a Part Two, a defense/rationale of the title, and a sister essay on being ex-Muslim.
What it is Like to be a Muslim Woman, and Why We Know What Freedom Is
By Hiba Krisht
I have keys.
When I moved to the United States around two years ago, it took me several weeks to grasp this.
I have keys.
I have keys to my own front door and I can open this front door and walk down the street whenever I like.
I can walk down the street without being watched through the windows and without anyone calling my parents and telling them their daughter is roaming loose.
I can walk down the street, sit down on a bench under a tree, and eat an iced cream cone. Then I can stand up and walk back home.
There will be nobody waiting for me at my house to ask me where I have been, refuse to let me in, to call me a liar, to use my walk as renewed incentive to rifle through all of my possessions.
Because the simple desire to take a walk cannot but hide something deviant.
Because there is no good reason why a woman should want to walk down the street just to walk, and expose herself, her body, to the questioning and consuming eyes of the neighbors and strange men.
(No good reason for us, at least, for Muslims, because these are not our values, not our morals, not our traditions. These are not things we can have.)
But now I have keys to my front door, and I can open my front door and walk down the street whenever I want to.
In the first weeks when I was in the United States, I had so much fear and trembling at this freedom.
I stayed in my apartment alone during the first couple of days in my new home, and when I did finally venture out, I checked to make sure my keys and ID and wallet were in my purse a thousand times. I wore long, flowing dresses and tied my hair up in a scarf even though it was August and very hot, even though I am an ex-Muslim now, who happens to find no personal value in modesty, even though I was not going out to meet anybody and knew not a single man in town with which to dishonorably consort.
Even though I tried to convince myself that in this land it wouldn’t matter if I did.
I looked around every corner and checked over my shoulder in case my father was somehow watching, lurking.
I still look over my shoulder sometimes.
And all this while, and even now, it sometimes feels like I am another person living a distant dream. A phantom woman. A woman who is only pretending to do things and be things that were never hers, that were never her. A woman who feels inauthentic for trying to decide what she is.
There is so much talk of what we are not.
We are not meant for your consumption, we are not your orientalist dream. This is the discourse surrounding the cultural appropriation of brown women.
Clamorous are the voices that say this. But tenuous is the discourse that is willing to discuss what is ours, what we can have, what can be fought for on our behalf if we do not have the means to fight for it ourselves, if it is not already granted to us by our cultural norms.
This is the discourse of cultural appropriation: that when you view what is ours through the lens of your own understanding, you bar us from agency and choice and self-determination .
This is always-already an assumption, and you rush in your refusal to judge the concepts of the hijab, the niqab, of gender segregation lest you misunderstand, lest you attempt to be an authority on what you will never be capable of experiencing. You fear violating an unobtainable cultural tradition, because to do so would be to violate the human beings that belong to it.
Except that we are human subjects, and our cultures belong to us more than we belong to them.
There is so much talk of what we are not—and it enables the delegitimatization of our voices when we try to speak of what we are, what we can have. When suddenly we become defectors, apostates, and our discourse is discounted as imperialist Western brainwashing.
The irony is that wedo not appropriate Western values when we endorse and adopt them, because to suggest that a brown woman can take Western ideas and turn them into her own brand of feminism and agency is unthinkable. Instead our discourse is thought of being a flimsy vapid imitation of the West. It comes as a surprise to some Westerners if and when we end up educated enough to teach white children their own languages, if our English is impeccable, our diction refined.
And once accepted, this somehow discredits us as brown women. We are discounted as inauthentic commentators on what was always-and-every issue governing our socialization, our actualization, our politicization because we break out of the bounds of our cultural dictates in doing so.
And when we are discounted by our cultural leaders and spaces too, we end up having no platform from which to speak at all.
Youso fear judging. Is it then possible that in order to not judge you are afraid to listen, because you are convinced you will never understand anyway?
Some nights, I wake up from dreams of Lebanon and think, “I have keys.”
Even now, I wake up from nightmares of Lebanon, where 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.
I spend so much time in the dark still that I sometimes cannot believe I am not hallucinating my new life from a dark room in Beirut.
I think, “I have my own place. My front door, my key. And I can open the door and walk out into the street? Whenever I want? And I have my papers and my things and my income? And I can just go somewhere. When I want? I can do this?”
(Still I question that I can own things, let alone own myself.)
My deepest instinct still is that it must be a sick joke.
A sick joke that I can…do things? I can be at the library however late I want without panicking and fearing for my safety once I go home? Without knowing the neighbors will call me a whore and my entire family be shamed? I can have people over when the sun is down and some of them can be men and we can play games and eat and drink and talk together and nobody will hurt me because of it?
And if I leave something someplace, I will come back and find it where I left it, unless I moved it myself.
And if it’s somewhere else, it is likely I moved it and forgot, and I will not start panicking, wondering where and why and how it was moved. I will not wonder things like: If whoever moved it saw it, did they see that other thing and did they do something with it and what do they know and what do they not know?
Even though I am hiding simple things. A tube of mascara. Some lacy underwear just to see what it feels like to wear that. A poem written from the persona of the devil. The Diary of Anne Frank. A Salman Rushdie novel a boy in my class gifted to me (double whammy right there). A box of tampons.
I can write things without hiding, coding, burying, and stashing them. I can make notes for myself in a notebook that are for my eyes only without fearing anybody reading them and demanding I reveal their meaning. I can have a password on my computer and to my email and facebook accounts that my parents do not know. I can save my contacts under their real names and not under various female pseudonyms.
I can keep my texts when I receive them and not instantly erase them.
I can talk on the phone without somebody listening on the other end.
I can ignore a phonecall from my father when I am in class or teaching.
I can forget my phone in another room and not be asked where I am and with whom, and what I am doing because I missed a call from him.
If I spend more than five minutes in the bathroom, nobody will bang on my door demanding to know what I am doing in there.
I can shave my legs without being interrogated as to why I’d do such a thing when nobody ever sees them.
I can brush my hair and look in the mirror and try on clothes and try to feel like I can manipulate and move and enjoy my body without being interrogated and asked who he is and how long I have been seeing him and what I am doing with him and whether I am a prostitute or pregnant.
I can say I am not hungry for dinner without anybody demanding to know why and for whom I am trying to lose weight, and I can gain weight without my body being denigrated as unworthy of being a marital prize.
I can shower without being asked why.
I can smile because I had a good day at work without being forced to explain why I am so happy.
I can cry at my empty, robotic life without being forced to explain why I am unhappy.
I can have facial expressions. Facial expressions.
I can have facial expressions.
I can have facial expressions.
It has been so hard to train myself to voice my feelings and opinions. To turn my face on.
I can sit however I want within my own house without being told that the position my legs are in is immodest.
I can stay up late doing work and reading philosophy or browsing online without being forced to go to bed.
I can read and use the internet without surveillance and censorship by my family.
I can watch a movie without turning it over for examination first.
I can sleep when I want, wake when I want, eat when I want or don’t want to.
I do not have to pretend to fast and pray.
I can get up in the middle of the night and use the bathroom or get a drink of water without tiptoeing in terror.
I can lock my room door. I can lock the door of my own room.
Saying I want to be alone, that I need space, that I do not want to reveal personal information, that I do not choose to answer that question, that it is none of your damn business, that this is my body and I can position it on the furniture however I like, that I do not have to explain to you why I am smiling, that this is my time, that this is my work, this is my mind and I can use it to read and write what I please…
I can say these things now.
I never could before.
We never could, before. So many of us cannot, still.
This way of living–having to regulate and hide our personalities, our humanity–the tone of our voices, their volume and timbre, the manner in which we sit or stand or walk or speak, whether and when we can leave our homes, how and when we speak to people, what we do and do not read, can and cannot think or express–this way of living is the reality and default for so many of us.
We are suppressed beyond imagining.
But imagining it is a step.
A well-meaning pretense is sometimes held up in liberal discourse that it is not possible to meaningfully convey what a brown woman’s experience could be like—not through the power of narrative, of words, not through sound and image. To hold her up as untouchable, give her agency, set her apart, put her above and beyond anybody else’s commentary on her life, her culture, her body—not yours, not yours. Except then, what? What if her own commentary is viewed as not-her-own but something else?
Then she is doomed to isolation, to living burial, like the infant girls of pre-Islamic Jahiliyyah in Arabia. If her voice happens to be of protest, of discord, of rejection, it is nullified before she can speak. Suddenly she is other to her own culture, and thus inauthentic.
And this is my assertion, not a plea: Do not say you fear to misunderstand, because you then tell her that her narrative and testimony is not powerful, does not communicate. And do not tell her that it is not hers as a brown woman, as a woman from her own culture, as a woman bred in the faith that was every element of her life to adulthood.
There is a telling Islamic parallel to this paradigm of a once-belonging individual suddenly becoming non-representative. Many Islamic scholars protest that there is no such thing as a true apostate, because for one to have been a Muslim to begin with, one must have understood Islam, and Islam is always-already perfectly unobjectionable. It is a self-referential assertion of how the culture of Islam is unapproachable, and any outward criticism leveled at it is based on a failure or inability to understand and belong to it. Unless it is always yours into the infinite future, then it is never yours. Nobody leaves the faith. You cannot defect from what you were never part of. And thus, you cannot speak of and for what you were never part of. Your past is erased, inconsequential, not yours.
And yet, punishment for apostasy in Islam is harsh, varying between banishment, social ostracization, and death according to scholarly interpretation. It is a contradiction, for how can a crime inconceivable of even existing have a punishment, let alone one so harsh?
Last winter, I composed an email to my father in Lebanon, asking him to let me come back home. To take me back, back into the culture, the family, the stronghold. I wrote that he could put me in a mental institution, or else let me stay between my room and his kitchen, for the next forty years if he wanted me to. But just let me come home.
It was the middle of the afternoon when I sat in my bed composing this email and looking at the snow choking up my windows. I almost sent it, but my partner came home early, caught me in the act, and stopped me.
He cradled me, put his ear to my lips, and let me close my eyes and rock while I whispered my thoughts to him, while I told him what I am and what I am not because of the damning brand of apostasy:
I am awful, I said.
I don’t want to be the devilchild who ruined my father’s life, who destroyed him with my shameful whore-body and shameful whore-mouth.
He cries every day, I said. He cries every day, and he is tortured and cannot sleep. He is depressed, ashamed, and does not speak of me and does not see old friends anymore in case they ask about me. All because of me, I said, because I am a stupid, horrible person.
My partner held my body like a rocking boat and I was not alone when he listened to these things come out of my mouth, and he knew not to appropriate my self-degrading instincts, my impulses to run back to past destruction and away from present kindness. He knew not to make them his pain, his hurt, about him. Not if he was to listen.
He held my body like an old wooden chair, imprinted upon by so many bodies but itself only a stiff frame, and listened to my self-description as such. I am lonely, I said while he held me. I am afraid, I said, and empty. I can’t write and I can’t teach, I said, I can’t do anything. I want to sleep and not have to care, and if I go home, my father will let me sleep, maybe even forever.
He wanted to say “listen to yourself” but that would not have been listening to me.
I said, I just want Baba to hold me and to not hate me and to tell me I’m okay.
Because, I said, Baba thinks I am immoral and hideous and stupid and a whore, and I don’t want him to think these things, and what is wrong with me?
M partner held me on our bed in our house as I said, if I go home to him and be good, Baba will maybe think I’m okay, and hold me.
What did I do to deserve Baba thinking these things about me, and the punishment? Why am I so wrong? Why could he never think I was good at anything? Why was I stupid and a shame to him, always, Perverse, always? Deviant. Always?
And both our bodies rocked with the overwhelming power of the Stockholm-Syndrome-type thoughts gripping me, thoughts that were not the truest form of me, but were underlying every true form of myself. Knowing with my mind that my thought processes at that heightened moment of existential grief were a product of PTSD, of a twisted conditioning so deep that it has reserves and reserves that continue to bubble up to the surface, despite all learning, all rationality, all nurturing, all care, all love.
Despite the love my partner must have listen to his brown woman express the strange complexities of what is uniquely her identity. An identity that is neither a monolithic product of a certain culture nor a free-floating thing unmolded by the bending power of her upbringing.
Let her refer to herself.
I have a friend, let us call her Leila, who is beautiful and creative and paints curving, sprawling, impulsive portraits of her favorite philosophers. She moved to the US to begin her PhD this summer. She is also a closet atheist who lives a double life among her Muslim family because she must.
Her parents want to call her twice a day, at her home number, to be given details of her new life.
When she spoke of this to me, her fears and worries were that such invasiveness would frustrate and hurt her secret boyfriend (an American) and their relationship.
This is a story of what it is like to be a Muslim woman: for it be first instinct to put our own frustrations and pains on the back burner, to delegitimatize the pressure we feel and worry more about the discomfort of other people. We worry about how our loved ones, our friends, our employers, our professors will handle the limitations placed on our everyday lives instead of being angry and concerned for ourselves.
We are taught that our feelings are of not much consequence, we are taught not to give them heed or space.
“I never think about my own frustration, or give it value,” Leila said to me.
And yet she is a phenomenally graceful and nuanced thinker, pursuing her PhD in one of the country’s top programs. She is still constrained in allowing herself to refer to herself.
Clearly what I have not yet said, in all of this discussion of self-referentiality, is that this essay is not meant to describe a single representative experience of women in Muslim-majority countries worldwide. I say clearly because Islam is not a monolith and is a manifold, with hundreds of sects and varying interpretations in both scripture and personal practice, and always intermeshed with a background culture, Arabian Peninsula, Levant, North Africa, Desi, Southeast Asia and so on, to form rich and varying new cultures.
When ‘Muslim’ can be an identity as widely varying as the faces of the women that carry it, as the beliefs of these women, 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.
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 some stories are deeper and more pained than others. Because there are Arab and Muslim women of the world who have been and still are trapped between the culture and belief systems they are socialized into and their attempts for self-actualization, who may not have the money and educational resources that Leila and I had and have, who are crippled by poverty, by unjust legislature, who may not have conceptual tools necessary for them to lead meaningful lives in their places of living.
And then more. Because the above does not yet touch upon the horrendous physical violence-that happens to a not insignificant number of women who dissent to or violate their cultural code of living.
But that is heavy, and easy to turn away from. So let us set it aside for a moment and pretend that it doesn’t come hand-in-hand with an obsession with the control of our bodies and our conduct and honor and shame. Even setting that aside, think of what you have listened to—how I have lived, how Leila has lived, and countless others.
This is how my sister lives still, my mother, my cousins, my friends.
I want to make clear what freedom means to women like us. What it means to have choice. What it means to have choice that is not just a variety of empty options, what it means to have voice that is not retarded by the suppression we live under or by the social costs of our apostasy, by Stockholm Syndrome and trauma. Because many of us can go to school and have jobs like we could in the West, and when we do this watched, controlled, like mannequins, this is not freedom.
We have freedoms that are not freedoms, and we can continue to go to school and go to work and be empty robots all the while. We brim with chronic hopelessness and self-defeat and empty confusion of striving, striving, to be fulfilled when we are mannequins.
And after we escape, or after things change for us?
We will spend some time adjusting, processing the fact that we have keys. We will be able to grasp, eventually, what it is like to have freedoms.
Some days we will even take them for granted, and if we realize we’ve done so, we will feel a sort of confused resentment at ourselves for forgetting the cost of our pain.
Other days, however, we’ll be very aware of our rights. The ridiculous pervasiveness of choice around us will paralyze and confuse us, and we will feel empty, incomplete, as we try to structure and choose what we are, what he have, what we like around a hollowness that always was.
Even the simplest of choices can seem desperate. I have had a panic attack choosing pizza toppings when my partner would not take ‘whatever you want’ as an answer for the umpteenth consecutive time.
I have been so used to choosing things according to a quick assessment of what other people want, prefer, or require, so that my life around them would be easier, so that they would not hurt me or destroy me. I have been so used to choosing what will make others happy.
And I am afraid of becoming capable of being free. I am afraid of transcending my ability to let my trauma and unhappiness consume me. I am afraid that succeeding in pulling together that broken part of me that does not know how to choose or care or be, how to quit compulsively faking emotions and detaching—
I am afraid of being no longer angry, no longer cognizant of this incredible injustice, being blind to what it means to not to be free.
I am afraid of being happy because it might mean I accept and am blind the constraints upon my freedom.
I am afraid of forgetting what it means to be free.
I am afraid that once I have freedom, I will no longer understand what freedom is worth and why it is important.
This is my reminder.