PART TWO: What it is like to be a Muslim woman
For Part One, see here. For more from the ‘what it is like to…’ series see here and here.
A defense and rationale for the title ‘What it is like to be a Muslim woman’ can be found here.
[Content Note: 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. Weekends and holidays are hell. 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. 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 place 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 anyone to look at you when you lower your arms.
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.
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.
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.