A deep magenta shalwar chemise lay draped on the bed. I had not worn such things in years, but today, while visiting a Washington, D.C. suburb, a Pakistani aunty told me to come over to her house and pick one out. I selected the one with the richest hue possible and quickly pulled the long tunic over my head. The pants, already suited with elastic, gathered around my waist. I stood in front of the mirror and contemplated the effect.
A few years ago, right after the divorce, most of my Muslim-type clothes ended up at Goodwill. I ferried towards an uncertain future donned in blue jeans, graphic t-shirts, and new tattoos. I had the continent of myself to conquer.
Now, with my body again covered in modest attire, my curves became more apparent. Down my right hip slid Pakistan. The Arab world clung to the left, and America rested on the delicate slope of my breasts.
My friend, Sadida, nodded her head with aunty-like approval, “This fits your shape quite well.” I agreed, for I am shaped like a motherland. Now my stories had nowhere to hide.
This trip did more than gift me a South Asian dress. It also brought me back inside a mosque, a place I had warily avoided since the divorce. Sadida had invited me to conduct a writing workshop with the women in the mosque. In this particular community, the women had a whole house as their own – the women’s prayer hall resided in another building than the men’s. In this type of space, the hijabs loosened, our voices widened, and stories stretched large.
I sat between a first-generation American high-schooler and an older woman who had been in America ten years and rarely interacted with people outside of the community. We told our stories. We laughed. Some of us cried. After this time away – years colored by experimental solitude in a White world and days defined by sorrow and contemplation – I had returned to the belly of community. Even with my jagged edges, I fit right back in.
A few weeks before re-entering the mosque, I found myself exploring a new relationship with a non-Muslim. He seemed accommodating. As a white Muslim-American divorcee in her 40s, companionship is really a matter of statistical possibilities. If I limit myself to Muslim men, the numbers dwindle quickly. The small number of eligible Muslim men aside, there is another dilemma: when it comes to a forever kind of choice, I want a man who is not simply Muslim, but also spiritually and intellectually curious about the world. I contain multitudes, so I can curve my life around someone who does not subscribe to Islam, if there is acceptance and understanding. And that is a big “if.”
This man embraced cultural fluidity as he had lived abroad during his formative years. He seemed to appreciate my many layers. Encouraged by this trait, I attempted to teach him how to greet Muslims. He tried, yet the words fell sloppy and unsure off of his tongue.
Again, I suggested. I repeated the phrase, making space between the letters. “Salaaam alaaykuummm. It means peace be upon you. It means you are safe with me,” I said. There was a second attempt at pronunciation and then a third, yet the words throttled, sticky and limp.
“All of your friends,” he offered, almost like an excuse, “seem to be Muslim. They may not accept me.” I assured him otherwise, yet he persisted. “You can’t just break the rules, Deonna, and still call yourself a person of that faith.”
I look at him a bit confused. “First, you don’t know the rules. Second, lots of Muslim women marry non-Muslim men.”
“Why do you always refer to me as non-Muslim?” he asked with an annoyed expression.
“Because you are.”
That answer didn’t sit well with him. “Well, I don’t like the way you look at the world – Muslim and non-Muslim. That is a screwed up logic.”
I tried to explain that in terms of humanity, such distinctions didn’t matter. But as far as faith was concerned, he was, indeed, a non-Muslim. After all, he couldn’t accompany me to Mecca. He didn’t relate to rug life. And he couldn’t say salaam alaykum without stumbling over the syllables.
And that was okay. The test, I thought, wouldn’t be if he could master the greeting, but how much of my Islam I could reveal to him. I wondered if I could throw down on the prayer rug in his presence. Prayer is a little patch of sacredness where we arrive clean and vulnerable, and that forehead-to-the-earth type of place seemed too personal to share with someone who didn’t understand my faith. It is an act that requires a certain type of stillness, yet contains enough momentum to crack the earth open. I couldn’t bring myself to prostate in his presence.
Not too far into the relationship, I was told I that I was in a crisis, that I had too many demons. “You have to choose,” my friend said, “between your identity and me.”
The first exercise at the mosque workshop required women to draw their childhood homes. They could show their interior spaces, or their courtyards, or even the streets of their youth. As I expected, some women in the workshop drew multi-floored villas, a few constructed scenes of village life, while others didn’t sketch anything at all.
I wanted a snapshot of their formative spaces to better understand their perspectives; in other words, how close in or how far out did these women need to zoom order to analyze their life experiences. The memory of our formative landscape shapes us for a lifetime. The fluidity of our childhood memories sets the stage for us to map the rest of our lives, particularly as so many of us will cross multiple boundaries in our journeys.
There are many things one can say about Muslim women, but here is one truth: we are all partitioned. The geopolitical realities of our stories insist that we place ourselves on a map; that we arrive with labels like Black-this or Pakistani-that or European-American Muslim (what does that mean, anyway?). Some of us are colonized. Others are exiled. At times, we live under dictatorships — the political well as the metaphorical kind–or we are split between multiple cultures, balancing the differently decorated rooms in the house we call life. To a degree, this experience defines womanhood. But Muslim women are gifted with engaging the political and the spiritual along with all the tasks of living in various cultural spaces. We are always in a state of compromise and negotiation, regardless of where we are from or where we are going. This state of expansion and contraction is sometimes lonely, often vast, and always powerful.
We hold the stories of husbands, fathers, and children with the highest regard, but we are rarely told to be proud of our own slopes and crevices, the places where our strength clings.
We are not small wonders.
I have spent my whole life feeling small, even if I am not a small woman.
The night my non-Muslim friend asked me to choose, I lay in my bed numb to the marrow. This new relationship offered the promise of companionship, but came with the caveat that I had to erase my identity, specifically the piece of my identity that carried the most weight–Islam. Sadness seeped into the floor that night. The reality of a future forever alone found its way to my prayer rug and prostrated for redemption.
The next morning, however, a small miracle occurred. I woke up joyful. I jumped from the bed to dance and then to pray. For the first time in my life, I loved who I was becoming. My hands canvassed the fleshiness of my hips, the soft slope of my waist. There is something beautiful here, they told me, in this complicated place of Muslimness.
Look, I wrote to my friend. I won’t consent to making myself smaller in order to fit into your world. No woman should furl so tight that she can run her hands down her complicated curves.
Two weeks later, I sat with Muslim women and we unfolded our stories. We heard from those whose husbands had encouraged their expansion. Others had found their stories wound tight inside small cracks. The younger ones in the group stood on the cusp of adulthood, blessed with limitless possibilities because their mothers had dared to leave a homeland.
Later, we gathered around the table eating biryani and consoled one another with tales of loss, redemption, and mercy. Hope exists even in the most difficult of stories. Salaam alaykum, sister, you are safe with me.
All women know sacrifice, but there is something weighty and global about being a Muslim women. Muslim women are metaphors for the condition of humanity: exiled, immigrants, cross cultured, brown, black, (sometimes) white, reverts, converts, subverts. But always warriors.
Deonna Kelli Sayed is an American, a Muslim, and a writer.