Tuesday, 2 June 2009

The trouble with being me!

I never fail to be amazed at just how relative progress can be; you can find yourself sitting comfortably in the false sense of security that occurs when something is going well on the surface, but it only takes one small ripple, a bubble of discontent to immerge, to make you realise that, in reality, the 10 years of progress you believed you had made, meant nothing at all!
I was reminded of this during an encounter with my mother earlier on this morning. Since reverting to Islam 11 years ago, I’ve had a very delicate, somewhat fractious and often superficial relationship with my parents. They chose to ignore/overlook my reversion at 14, believing it to be a faze I was going through; I even remember my mum laughing casually with a friend saying: “it could be worse; she could be taking drugs!”
Despite my rash nature and immaturity at that time, I was sensible enough to water down my religion for the duration of my time at home, seeing that over zealousness in this department was only adding fuel to their fire, and regardless of how much I desired to learn and practise Islam, I held back, preferring to attempt bridge building before walking out of the house. My company at that time (Islamic company that is), was essentially wahabi, and many told me vehemently that leaving home was, (and should have been), my preferred option. This troubled me, (and it troubles me deeper still when I see that such ignorance is still preached to reverts by many so-called Muslims!). I tried never the less, to remain at home, with very little support or backing from the Muslim community. When the possibility of marriage came along, I jumped at it! Even though marriage couldn’t have been further from my agenda at 18, it offered me a get-out claws, a safe, secure and respectable way of leaving home and carving a new Muslim identity for myself, with a Muslim husband, within a Muslim family. I was even naive enough to merely assume, that over time, and following the birth of children, things would level out with the family, I didn’t expect things to be perfect, but I thought we might at least reach a level where we respected the mutual differences of the other, and perhaps even shared and enjoyed in those accessible cultural practises we could share, (Christmas, eid and the like).
Some of you more experienced reverts out there will have doubtless guessed where this is going! As predicted, the marriage news fell like a led balloon when my parents came to know of it! the news was compounded by the fact that my husband couldn’t have been any further than my parent’s idea of “suitable”. He spoke rough Urdu and perfect Punjabi where my English was eloquent and cultured, I was intuitive where he was practical, I was outgoing where he was silent, and despite my basic schooling, I had qualifications and good prospects, while my betrothed was a man of the land, who was working in a restaurant, with absolutely no desire to learn daily English, never mind gain a University degree! We were the most unlikely match for one another, yet we somehow worked! He taught me Urdu, and then Islam, (and cooked a mean curry!), while I struggled to inculcate the rudiments of English, and flailed around clutching at the straws of practicality necessary to build a home and start a family. But while I studied, took on some voluntary work and even bagged a top job in broadcasting, my husband remained at the restaurant, making no progress at all. In fact, the only thing that had changed about our hand-to-mouth chaos was, I now had a job, and money to feed us, while my husband held pure resentment for my newfound status and confidence, and felt I was becoming too “white”, rather than the shy, tame traditional female he married 3 years previously!
The only bright spark that came out of all this, was with my family, they loved the “poor girl made good”, that I had grown to be in their eyes. A blind girl, “forced to marry an Asian Muslim” (again, as they saw it!), but all the same, still managing to become a successful broadcaster and excel in her chosen professional and social spheres respectively. They were happier still when, a few months later, my husband left for Pakistan with his UK visa (giving me ‘talaaq on route!). They pretended to feel my pain and even share it, but in reality I kept it from them. Their every gesture was spiked with unflinching “we told you so’s”, which were so cold and unfeeling, that I knew it was pointless to try and tell them that “I knew too!”, and that actually, the marriage, and the divorce were all part of my journey. I let these things go, and instead went overseas and took a job in a totally different environment, far from the past, the pain and my parents, where I could lick my wounds and start a new!
The plan worked, and the family were even happier with the strong, courageous and independent female who returned to them, (I could even get in to size 12s then, which in my mother’s eyes made me nothing short of a Fashion Goddess!).
For the 3 years that followed, we lived a fairly humdrum existence, things were better between them and me, not because of my work, my travels or my appearance! Things were good for one reason and one reason only; since the break-down of my marriage, Islam had not figured any where on my radar! It was a knee-jerk reaction of course; poorly reasoned and never thought through!
My explanation to any one who had the misfortune to listen, said that if all Muslims were cheep, pathetic, evil vindictive users who saw women as nothing more than sex objects and vehicles for securing UK citizenship, then I didn’t want to be among them, and would much rather be the typical run of the mill Western female that my parents wished them to be. Foolish as it may sound to some, sharing a glass of wine with my dad, sunbathing with the family on the back deck or going to a family party actually gave me a fundamental sense of belonging that I’d never ever known before. My “normality”, made them happy, and right there and then, their happiness was enough for me.
All that changed in late 2006, when I rediscovered Islam for myself. I stumbled back to my fitra, purely by accident, after reading a novel by ‘DR Syed Ikram Hussain Abidi, (see www.abidis.org).
DR Abidi (or Shabber as he prefers to be known), is a medical doctor, with a holistic view towards learning and teaching Islam. He has written a number of fictional novels, each with a profound yet subtle Islamic undertone, and it was his novel ‘hijaab Waali (or the Valed girl), which plucked certain chords in my heart. Moreover, the Novel introduced me to the ‘Ahlulbaytes, (or the shia) school of Islam, which finally provided me with the Islamic peace, belonging and answers I had so desperately been searching for. I finally put the pain of my failed marriage to rest, and started to make the obvious, yet prior to unchartered distinction between Islam (as a faith/way of life), and Muslims, (who are only human after all!). My contentment and well-being within my rekindled faith was something so natural, so elemental, that it never occurred to me that I should discuss it with work colleagues, with friends, or, (with my family!). I simply started praying, eating halal again and, (for the first time!), wearing the hijaab (or head scarf).
The scarf, was to be the only stumbling block for my traditionalist and fundamentalist Christian family. The irony is that, while my family do not practise Christianity in any way, shape or form, they take on what they believe to be “Christian values”, whenever any thing threatens their comfortably blinkered life, and while most Christians would actually prefer their daughters to dress modestly than other wise, my parents would most certainly be much happier if I were to walk out of my home half naked than wearing an abaya and a head scarf! Here too, I tried to play this down for a while; (wearing long skirts and shirts, trousers and long jumpers with short, stylish hijaabs to cushion the blow as far as was realistic), but this too had to reach a head somewhere. I even took the scarf off when out with my Grandparents or my father, (those who showed the most hatred and resistance) though felt intense shame when I was seen by a member of the Muslim community without my scarf. In moments of solitude, I’d often ask myself how long this would last; I am 26 now; would I continue fearing my parents and shying away from their disapproval till I was 30? 40? 50 even? When would I draw a line! And why was their approval so important to me any way? had I ever gained any thing tangible from it in the past? My professional and media profile began to grow slowly and steadily within an Islamic context, and as it grew, so did my confidence in my own skin! Taking refuge in the example of the hijaab of Saeeda Zeynab (A.S), I took on the Abaya with style, grace, elegance, confidence and piety. The fears and doubts still clouded my mind when I visited the family, (I still hid in the kitchen to put on my hijaab, and then rushed out the door whenever dad was at home!), but on the whole, things were much better than before (or, so I thought!).

Back to today! And I’m towelling off after my morning shower; preparing for my hospital appointment which mum was to accompany me to, and trying not to melt in the intense heat of the sunlight streaming in through the bathroom skylights. I commented to mum that my dad didn’t seem well to me, that he was quiet, with drawn and hadn’t seemed too interested in talking with me when I had arrived at their home the night before. Out of no where, my mother yelled in retort: “it’s the way you dress!! Its hard, very hard for him, don’t you realise that? Don’t you feel any shame in walking around like the sight you are embarrassing us?” I stood wrapped in my towel, open mouthed and overcome with shock! Where had this come from? Was I really that ignorant and oblivious to what was going on, or had this really come as a bolt from the blue? She went on:
“you and your friends might enjoy criticising us, saying we should be more understanding, but they have never disobeyed and shamed their parents in the way that you have! How would their parents feel if they were to become Christian?”. Now; this was familiar!! This was reminiscent of all the allegations fired at me 10 years ago! I kept my cool; reminded my mother that many people Revert to Islam every day, I have many friends in this position, and in the majority of cases, things do level out with respect to their non-Muslim families. My mother however, (who by choice has never constructively engaged in dialogue with a revert, or any other Muslim in her life), chose not to hear this, she accused me of not talking them through my conversion seriously, and said that all of the difficulties they were now facing, were entirely my fault! The long and short of this rant was, she felt I should review my position within the family; either “be straight” with them, (which I took to mean leaving Islam in this case, or at least open observance of it), or else living and behaving like a “real” member of their family, (real, being any one who doesn’t wear abaya and Hijaab!), my parents are not at all doctrinal; (neither of them as even read the bible cover to cover! But the appearance is all important, and the hijaab, with all its terrorist and fundamentalist undertones, simply has to out!).

The hospital appointment, and the few hours we spent subsequent were tense and heart rendering for me. While my mum tired her best to be normal, I found it hard to relax, engage in casual conversation and shopping etc. I felt displaced, wounded, hurt and more dark and alone than I’ve felt in a very long time. In a matter of seconds, the time taken to immerge from a cold shower and dress, I had stepped back 10 years in time with my mum, any apparent good work that had been done now lay in ruins at my feet, and whether true or not, I felt solely responsible for the alleged betrayals and carnage my parents claimed had been inflicted on them. The extended account above is not any thing new, in fact revert Muslims go through all of this, and more (and worse!), on a daily basis. Some are thrown out from their family homes, others are disowned, verbally or physically abused for their beliefs. Embracing Islam is not the bed of roses that many in the community perceive it to be. I remember my reversion being celebrated by the city; Muslims from every where, congratulating me, shaking hands, giving gifts, prayers and offers of support. I was a constant dinner guest for months at some of the most prominent Muslim houses in town, and was never short of a place to break fast during my first Ramadhan! As time passes however, these enthusiastic companions move on to the next new recruit; they might call once in a while, they might meet you at eid prayer, but that’s about as far as most are willing to go. Soon, eids drift in to insignificance, and the long nights of ramadhan are cold and lonely when you don’t have any one to eat or pray with. When I was flavour of the month however, I do remember discussing my family with many of them, and being tutted and sighed over: “make dua sister! Pray that they too find Islam some day!”, (naturally, those are prayers I do make, but is reversion really all we are dealing with here? Like other fundamentalist number crunchers in the faith world, have we too simply been reduced to a fickle figure game?). Those more ambitious reverts, who had travelled that road before me, did occasionally volunteer to meet with my parents, (which meant a great deal, even though I knew that neither of them would ever agree to meet a Muslim! Socially or other wise!). So, there you have it! stalemate! Here things remain and here they will doubtless stay for another 10 years! My parents and I, dancing around each other in apparent indignation, neither strong enough to challenge the other, our words and actions fringed with cynicism, anger and indifference, while the blood ties that join us only grow weaker and weaker! I watched my maternal family disintegrate slowly and painfully through-out my childhood, and now me, the last in the generation (if I do not marry again!), have to watch the same thing happen to my parents and me. Who is to blame? (probably no one!), or possibly even all of us. All 3 of us are new to this after all, and the pressure on humanity to homogenise and conform is phenomenal as the electronic and print media continue to bombard us with perpetual subversive references towards what is “normal” “desirable” and “sought after”
I am none of these for my parents, and Islam is far from the in thing these days! But surely if the preaching is to be believed, we are all one umma! A community, a tribe (a family!), who feels the pain of one member just as though it were a collective agony! But where are the mentors for Reverts? Where is the integration, when born Muslims do not welcome “goray” (Muslim or other wise), in to their families for marriage, and the mosques are still preaching Friday sermons in Urdu, Arabic or Punjabi!
This week, Shaykh Amer Jamil launches a campaign to encourage the mosques of Glasgow to vote for English sermons and more Inclusive mosques, tell them what you think by voting on; www.scottishislamic.org
English sermons and integration won’t move mountains with my parents, but perhaps, if mosques come together with new Muslims and the organisations that support them, then just maybe, disillusioned bloggers like me won’t be writing 5-paged rants like this one in 10 years time! (Insha Allah!).

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