My Journey and Struggles as a Muslima Artist Dealing With Mental Illness

My Journey and Struggles as a Muslima Artist Dealing With Mental Illness October 25, 2017

journey struggles Muslim artist mental illness
Photo by Amaury Salas on Unsplash

I became an artist at the young age of seven.

My soul was woven into the fabric of the Massachusetts woods. I was raised in a rural town which is surrounded by forests. People failed me, so I went into the woods; it was where my spirituality was born. I felt very deeply the Oneness of God at an early age. I wanted to celebrate God, and share it with the world. My friends became the woods, the animals and birds. I found Beauty in nature. This is where I escaped my childhood. This is where I belonged to God. I began to write about God and illustrate my stories.

Art as a Refuge

My grandparents raised me because my parents abandoned us. My siblings were placed into orphanages. I felt a great sense injustice about the situation. My family was consumed with worldliness: they played cards and fixed cars to pass time, and neglected what happened to me and my siblings. I was overweight, wore secondhand clothes, and was picked on — I was told I was ugly. The world rejected me. I was angry, and I dealt with it by escaping through my art.

My grandfather, who was a devout Catholic, influenced my faith in God. He was the only one that loved me, but I lost him to cancer at 6 yrs. old. Because of the extreme grief, abuse, and the loss of my siblings, I mentally collapsed.

At one point, I wanted to become a nun. I suffered in my teens from extreme depression. It went untreated, so I used religion as a way to escape. When I realized that what I was doing was not healthy, I gave up on Christianity altogether.

Discovering Islam

The first person I met who was Muslim was my cousin who lived in a veteran’s home. He was also an artist. He had fought in World War 2 and had PTSD. We were inseparable. I remember when he told me that he was Muslim; it was unbelievable to me. I could only think of men roaming the desert in white sheets. I was also surprised when Cat Stevens became Muslim.

I once sat on my doorstep on a summer day and read a story about an English girl who fell in love with a maharajah. I was enthralled. I wanted to go to India to meet my own handsome Raj. At this point, I was only 16 years old. I could never have imagined what would come 5 years later — only, he would be Muslim from Bangladesh.

Eventually, I went to art school. I had been a very sheltered woman up until that point. Now, for the first time in my life, I saw great works of art. I started drawing women with turbans and I wanted to cover up myself, so that men would not see me as a sex object, but as an intellectual. I also won my first major poetry contest.

But at times, I starved. I had not been taught to live on my own. There were days when I had to choose whether to eat or buy art supplies. This was a time when I went through a very dark period in my life. I was a crime victim.

I prayed that I would be rescued from my life. I felt I was not going to survive.

Finding True Love

My prayer was answered, and Amanie came into my life. He was an Engineering student from Bangladesh. I wanted to marry him, but his father was very much against it. ‘Abba’ was a prominent doctor, and Amanie was his only son. He had a very good upbringing. I made promises to win Abba over. I married my husband and converted to Islam.

My husband rescued me. I always knew that he would be a good family man. It was the marriage of Cinderella to the handsome Prince. He changed my life. He introduced me to Bengali culture. I was expected to be a good housewife, and to raise Muslim children.

Islam or Art?

I began to struggle with being a Muslim and an artist at the same time. I tried my best to adapt to a different culture. It seemed I should not waste my time painting. I tried to be the perfect Muslim Bengali wife.

I started going to the mosque and we became very involved there. My friends were mostly all Muslims. When an American Muslima at the mosque told me that I could no longer be an artist, I quit being an artist to please God.

During the pregnancy of my third child, I had a nervous breakdown. I couldn’t even take care of my children. I didn’t think I would ever recover; I was catatonic. After I had been hospitalized, I even had to have shock treatment because of my grief and my struggle. But I told God that I would survive for my family.

An Unsteady Recovery

After leaving the hospital, I came to California and recovered. I was diagnosed as Bipolar. I wanted to give my children the childhood that I never had, but I was still not well. I looked horrible and would stay in bed. My daughter would pull the covers off me, and every day, I told her how beautiful she was. I greatly depended on my children; they parented me. I wanted them to be educated and know they were loved.

We, and several other families, founded our mosque. I also fell in love with Sufism. I eventually did go for the Hajj pilgrimage, but it was a very difficult trip for me. I didn’t feel worthy enough to go.

I published poetry and taught art to abused children, but it was not validated. I was not even getting paid for what I was doing. I wore a mask of cheerfulness, but I was unhappy.

Everyone around me was more educated than I was, and I started feeling ashamed for not finishing my degree. I didn’t even do art for many years, because I felt it was my duty to raise my children with full dedication. Many people looked down on me for my being a housewife and not working.

Embracing Art Once Again

We traveled to Turkey and prayed in the Blue Mosque. We went to Topkapi Palace and saw the relics of our Prophet (pbuh), and saw the staff of Moses. We saw the whirling dervishes in Istanbul, and the gracefulness within their movements mesmerized me.

Abba died. I grieved for him for many years. I was grateful to him, even though he did not approve of me being a painter. I conformed because of my love for him. He always felt proud of me that I listened to him. I kept my promises.

My father died as well. I went to his bedside as my Muslim duty. He didn’t deserve me there. He was never a father to me. I never received an apology from him.

Afterwards, I changed drastically: I lost weight, dressed artistically, and willed myself to be happy. I began to paint again. With the encouragement from my son, I went to a local gallery, where Reza Sepahdari, a famous Iranian artist, looked at my artwork and decided I should have a show of my own. I had talent but lacked years of education, so he taught me.

I produced 15 works of art in one year, including paintings of whirling dervishes and angels. My husband supported me, and I appreciated Reza for teaching me. It was a great first show with friends from the mosque. I became a full-time artist. I was finally selling my art.

I started painting at midnight, practicing Sufism, socializing, and doing housework during the day. I couldn’t sleep or concentrate. I had another nervous breakdown. I was diagnosed with PTSD because of my childhood. I went to an outpatient psychiatric program for two months for extensive treatment. I was writing and painting as therapy. I survived it.

Reconciling Art and Religion

Being a Muslim was complicated by my mental health, and I believe that being an artist is what saved me. Why would God instill creativity and inspiration in us, if he did not want us to create? Art is ingrained in me.

Artists have a responsibility to show God’s beauty in our work and not let it become sordid by worldly trends. It is very spiritual work like Reza’s which taught me that every brush stroke is an act of worship.

The arts are gifts to us from the Creator. I stopped creating because I was told that God did not want me to, but the arts helped me survive. As a teacher, I believe wholeheartedly that children should be taught the arts, spirituality, and a love for nature. Without these things, children will be lost. It made a big difference in my life, and it would make a big difference in society if children were taught these things.

I am well now. I had sacrificed myself in the past to make others happy. I was trying to conform, and I didn’t let my children be creative because I felt it was against Islam. That was a mistake.

We should not let others dictate for us what is right; we have to all face Allah ourselves. He alone will judge us, and I believe He loves us more than we can imagine. If we waste our talents, we are not living up to what God intended for us. We should utilize our gifts to help beautify the world through inspiration of the Creator. I know now that I am blessed with the gift of art.


Stephenie Bushra Khan is a converted Muslim, a poet, and local artist in Temecula, California. She is originally from Winchendon, Massachusetts.

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