The perfect Muslimah. She is shy and retiring. She covers from head to toe in voluminous black clothing, uncovering nothing of her face and only one eye to see her way on the road. She walks silently and with gaze downcast. She avoids talking and laughing so as not to allow the sound of her voice to fall within the hearing of a non-related man. She keeps to the shadows, emerging from her home only rarely. She allows her husband to shop for food, clothing, and other necessaries so she can avoid the boistrous and unpious marketplace. She eschews TV for her Qur’an, reciting ayahs throughout the day and night. She stands in prayer five times during the day and late into the night. She cleans her home with a thoroughness that would shame the keepers of the Ka’aba. She never contradicts her husband, always cooks his favorite food, defers to him in all financial issues, bears with silent endurance any shorting of her rights. She is the perfect Muslimah.
Why do we have women like this, impossible imaginary women like this, I might add, held up to us as role models? Why can’t we be good Muslimahs and be businesswomen (like our mother Khadijah, may Allah be pleased with her) who occasionally forget to put the dough away so the goat eats it (like our mother Aisha, may Allah be pleased with her) and who get jealous (like our mother Hafsah, may Allah be pleased with her) and who are divorcees (like our mother Zainab, may Allah be pleased with her) and who basically are good people, successful people, dynamic individuals and pious striving believers? When so many of our early role models of Islam are complex, diverse women of different backgrounds and experiences, why are we instead given a caricature to live up to?
My favorite striving wonderful Muslim sisters are married and single, shy virgins and confident matrons, mothers of five and mothers of none, stay-at-home keepers of the hearth and successful entrepreneurs. They laugh at silly jokes, trip on the hems of their abayas going up stairs, sometimes swear in several languages when they get cut off in traffic, burn dinner, make gourmet meals, maintain a beautiful home, and barely manage to keep the dust bunnies at bay. They speak out against injustice, counsel their husbands before said spouse blows the rent money on a “sure” investment he heard about from a brother at the mosque, bite their tongues when their mothers-in-law criticize they way they fold the towels, make sure some money is set aside for the zakah box at the masjid, fight to make sure the women’s prayer area is maintained, drive to work, drive to the grocery store, drive the kids to school and soccer and karate, buy only organic meat, spend too much time on Facebook, knit badly, crochet well, and basically live lives that are busy, crazy, chaotic, and incredibly fulfillilng.
We are not caricatures. We are living, breathing, striving Muslimahs. We pray and fast. We wear niqaab or hijab or just long skirts and loose tops. We listen to lectures on Paltalk. We finish nursing degrees. We write. We try not to sound stupid when we practice our Arabic. We try to increase our imaan bit by bit, day by day, and some days are better than others. We do what women have done throughout the history of mankind. We are ourselves.
Some women have lost the ability to be themselves. She read in a book somewhere that a woman is supposed to be subservient to her husband, to be chaste and quiet and not have friends that her husband doesn’t like. She heard a lecture by some famous sheikh that a woman should only go out of her house three times in her life – when she is born, when she marries, and when she dies. She truly wants to be a good Muslimah so she clamps down on her personality. She smiles when she wants to laugh. She wears a huge all-encompassing overhead abaya when she really would rather wear something a bit less overwhelming. She locks up her jewelry so as not to make a display of herself. She makes a grocery list for her husband because he doesn’t want her to go out, even though she knows how to shop the sales and he’s for sure going to forget half of what’s on the list. She stays off the computer, even though she really loves to keep up with her friends, because her husband gives her the stinkeye if she is online when he’s home, even though he’s on his iphone half the evening. She sits in the room while he watches his favorite show, not working on her stitching or reading because it “distracts” him. She only cooks the ethnic food he likes even though she misses her favorite food. She stays away from the mosque because he says it’s too much of a fitnah, though he goes every day to pray. She doesn’t go back to school to get the five hours she needs for her associate’s degree because her husband says it’s not necessary. She refrains from mentioning an idea she had for a business because he will say it’s not a good idea. She goes without more than one abaya and a couple of thrift-store dresses because he doesn’t want her to waste money on a lot of clothing since she never goes out. She stays inside the house instead of going out for a walk while her husband is at work because he wants her to stay “safe” behind a locked door when he’s not there to keep an eye on her. She only calls her mom when he’s not home because her mom is not Muslim and her husband disapproves of her. She builds a box around her that she has been told is piety, but which in reality is oppression. She thinks the problem is her. She thinks she’s a bad Muslimah and she approaches despair. But she goes on, for the sake of the children, or because everybody knows that divorce is the most hated thing in Islam, and that if she speaks out and causes a divorce she’ll be in the Hellfire. So she sits in her prison of piety and dies a little more each day, until only a shell is left behind.
Wow, dang, you say. Overly dramatic much? What a big imagination you have! Um, no, not really. Everything, every single sentence in that last paragraph, I have seen a friend or acquaintance of mine go through. Right now, I know many of my Facebook friends and contacts, and real life friends in my local community, are in such unequal, unrealistic, unislamic relationships. They have been fed a line of crap by men who want to practice HISLAM and they are suffering because of it.
I am here to tell all my sisters in Islam that it doesn’t have to be this way. There is room, among the one billion Muslims on the planet, for you and your very own personality. There is room for you. Room for the sister who snorts milk out of her mouth when she guffaws in a most unladylike fashion. Room for the woman who goes to university and wants to become an engineer or an architect or a doctor. Room for the woman who wants to homeschool her children and have a small business on the side. Room for the woman who complains like clockwork because the board at the mosque (all men) tries to relegate the women to the balcony even though there are disabled among them who can’t manage the stairs. Room for the woman who manages the checkbook, does the shopping, and expects her husband to talk with her before he spends money on a car or a business opportunity. Room for the woman who says, yes, we can send money back to your country, but we have to take care of ourselves as well. Room for the woman who has her own income and cannot be guilted into giving it to her husband to pay the light bill. Room for the woman who demands that her disabled child be accommodated at the Sunday school. Room for women who are not quiet. Women who are strong, believing, striving Muslimahs, not perfect by any stretch, but working day by day to improve. There is room for you and you are the role model of Islam, as much as the shy retiring, never-say-a-word-or-leave-the-house lady
Do NOT allow yourself to be boxed in. Do not think that changing certain behaviors (dressing modestly, not drinking alcohol and going to pubs) means you have to change your personality. If you are that somewhat loud woman who laughs at all the jokes, go ahead and laugh. If you are the woman who absolutely hates to clean, that doesn’t mean you’re a failure. If you want to be a career woman, then do it, but make damn sure you marry a man who will let you be yourself and fulfill your dreams. Make sure the man you marry will be your partner and your helper, not your judge and jailer. Marriage is not a master / servant relationship, but I see far too many women acting like it is.
I look to myself. My parents divorced when I was 14. I learned early on to take care of myself. Didn’t always do such a great job of it, but heck, I was FOURTEEN. I got a job when I graduated high school, advanced rapidly to manager, bought myself a car, got an apartment, bought my own groceries, fixed flat tires, did laundry, kept the apartment looking good enough for friends to come over, started college, joined a gym, visited with my family, learned about different religions, stopped drinking alcohol and eating pork, stopped dating, learned about Islam, continued to work and drive and pay bills and live my life. So, how come I’m supposed to just go all helpless when I get married? Am I to take all that life experience and set it aside in order to make tea and wait on my husband? Uh, no. Today, after twelve years of marriage (and a lot of bumps in the road, because, c’mon, we’re only human), I am nurturing my writing with my husband as my biggest cheerleader. I have a full partnership with my husband in our business. I have primary responsibility for the kids. I cook, I clean (though we got some help with that now that I’m working more), I tell hubby I’m not cooking today because I worked all day so let’s get pizza, I pay the bills. I know where EVERY PENNY of his, my, and our money is. My husband consults with me before he makes any big decision, except when he is around the house too much and decides to rearrange the furniture. I teach the kids their Islam and I call my mom (not as often as I should) and I do often sign off of the computer when hubby is home NOT because he gives me the stinkeye but because I want to spend time with him. I work on my cross stitch or crochet when we’re watching some shoot-em-up bang-bang movie that he loves because I want to be in the room with him but I can’t let my fingers sit still for two hours. I sometimes explain movie plots to him as the show goes on (No, honey, the chimpanzee in “Planet of the Apes” can’t really do all that because this movie is fiction). When we were first married, sure, I was on my best Super Muslimah behavior for a while, but over time I loosened up because no one can sustain an act for that long. I let him see the real me and I guess it’s okay because he hasn’t kicked me to the curb yet. I am the real me because the real me is pretty okay and I see no need to chop up my personality into little bits and toss it into the wind. That way lies madness, and binge eating and sitting on the couch watching Jerry Springer and being unmotivated because nothing matters. No thanks.
I know a lot of you are married, a lot of you are divorced, a lot of you have never been married. I know a lot of my friends have good, strong, healthy marriages based on Islam and honest caring for one another. But I know there are a lot, way too many, dysfunctional marriages that have skewed toward the master / servant model and that is just not right. You are equal to a man in the sight of Allah. Yes, we should be chaste (men, too). Yes, we should pray and fast and not flirt and not watch TV programs with nudity and bad stuff and we should try to keep the house clean and make edible food if we are the main ones cooking. Yes, we should support our husbands and rub their backs after they’ve had a long hard day at work. Yes, we should love his family and help them financially if they need it, and not buy expensive clothing or waste money on ten different purses or fancy shoes. Yes, we should be smart, and pious, and frugal, and helpmates for our spouses. But we are NOT servants. We don’t give up our hopes and dreams when we become wives. We don’t stop being people. In a healthy marriage, your husband will see you had a rough night with the baby and he’ll stop and pick up a roasted chicken so you don’t have to cook. When you are feeling under the weather he’ll mix you up some weird concoction recommended by his mother and stand over you while you drink it. He’ll hold the baby so you can take a shower, he’ll praise you when you go back to school, he’ll rub YOUR back some days. He’ll be your partner, not your boss. Wow, what a concept.