GOATMILK continues its original and exclusive month long series entitled “The Contemporary Muslim Woman” featuring diverse Muslim women writers from around the world discussing a gamut of topics in their own unique, honest and eclectic voices.
The Miseducation of Miss Ali
Nausheen Ali, March 6, 2009.
“God’s on my side!” The words hit me like a wet spitball. My fourth grade brawl over the singular swing in the playground had developed into a theological tit for tat. The funny part was that she had said exactly what I was thinking. I knew my schoolmate had no idea what she was talking about. There was no way God was on HER side, because I was a Muslim and God is ONLY on the side of the Muslims…wait, huh? Yeah, yeah that was right; all the Hindus, Christians and Jews were going straight to hell because they were not Muslim, yeah that was right. Something in that logic didn’t quite fit, but that’s what my uncle had told me, so it must be true, right? Incidentally, the same uncle had once proclaimed that all men were better than women because…well, God said so. Growing up Muslim in an Indo-Pak family with no father and a mother who worked three jobs I had a lot of time to think about the inequities of life. A spattering of chauvinistic Islamic interpretation, attendance at an all Christian middle school and general familial chaos all culminated in creating one perplexed pre-pubescent Muslimah.
I would love to say my Islamic mentors appeared in due time, but the miseducation was to continue for a bit longer. When I was eight my Quran teacher’s method for perfecting my tajweed was to pinch my thighs with every mistake. At thirteen I met a lady at the masjid who told me God would always condemn female leaders. And I vividly remember a night during Ramadan when my aunt told me angels were spitting on my head because I refused to wear hijab. It seemed God didn’t like women very much. If he had why would he have given men the right to beat us with a miswak? Why were we made from the left-over rib of man and not a creation whole in and of itself? The Islam that was presented to me by my elders and teachers was one that I didn’t want anything to do with.
Fast forward ten years and I am in the thick of rejecting and being rejected. The time-honored ritual of being set-up for marriage by over-zealous aunties, matchmakers and really anyone within a 25 mile radius of a suitable Muslim bachelor with a green-card was well under way. My mother’s idea of a “confidence booster” was telling me that by my age she had already given birth to three children. She couldn’t understand what I was looking for and thought the problem was my “too high expectations.” “You know, Mr. Perfect wants to marry Ms. Perfect and you’re not that perfect!” I tried to explain to her that I didn’t want to get married just for the sake of it. I wanted a real love that was spiritual and I wanted an intellectual connection too. Exasperated, she scheduled an appointment with a Muslim counselor, so that I could discuss my “problems,” mainly my refusal to get married. I felt alone and very distant from a culture and religion that seemed to care so little about following one’s heart.
The tutelage of my early years coupled with a slightly portly disposition resulted in an insecurity that was hard to shake. Knowing that, at least according to my mother’s time line, I should have been married and a mother of three only made things worse. I was certain that I was not going to marry a Muslim man. To me these men represented everything I loathed, machismo coupled with chauvinism, a dubious combination and one that overshadowed every matrimonial encounter I had those days. The years of miseducation had taken their toll and I dreaded being locked in matrimony with a man that would subject me to subservience. Instead, I followed my heart and it led me to a bohemian Palestinian living out of his car, a non-Muslim. He could recite verses from the Quran, knew the works of Ibn Al-Arabi and taught me about Rabia Al-Basri. I had found my soul mate.
The tension in the house grew to a fervent pitch during those days. My mother’s frustration formed into fury. We hardly spoke to each other, but when we did speak it was always an explosive argument. To her I was wasting my life waiting for something that, in her eyes, didn’t exist. The romantic relationship that I had such great expectations for was at a crossroads. I represented too many commitments, marriage being one of them, and the gravity that made us so special was also weighing us down. Then one day it ended. I was devastated.
I felt abandoned by God. My anger at being given all the wrong answers to my spiritual questions had infuriated me. And the end of an idealized relationship broke my heart. I saw one path strewn with glass and the other with roses and both had led me nowhere, both seemed to be a cosmic error in God’s plan for me.
It wasn’t until I became a mother that I realized that those roads that seemed so divergent to me at the time were one and the same. The miseducation was the education and the heart break would eventually lead to a great heart-mending love. Even my relationship with my mother would eventually transform into a friendship that I would never have suspected back then. God does his work through dichotomies and that was certainly true for me. The cultural Islam and dogma, the frustrating expectations and the end of a young love were forces that pushed me along my path and finally into the light. Despite my prejudice I fell in love with a Muslim man and today I laugh at the limits I had set on my heart during my youth. I laugh at the thought that any thing I experienced was a mistake. In my folly I couldn’t see God’s plan for me. In the midst of my confusion I thought God wasn’t there. I know now that I was mistaken. Through it all God was always on my side, He’s always on everyone’s side.