Towards finding me again, after losing me for a long, long time

Once upon a time not all that long ago, my choices were heavily restricted by a number of mutually reinforcing constraints:

Poverty. Belonging to a conservative religious sub-culture which had a lot of rules about what you can and cannot do, as well as strong ideas of what is and isn’t appropriate for a women (and strong social pressure to avoid “inappropriate” things). Poverty. The number of children I had, their ages, and my daily responsibilities to care for them. Poverty. The culture and personal tastes of the man I had married, as well as the opinions of his family and ethnic community as to what was and was not acceptable.  Poverty. Feeling out of place or unwelcome in certain places and situations, due to my hijab. Poverty. Not having friends outside of my community. Poverty….

But once upon a time, a time so distant that I can barely remember it, I was a teenager. Back then, I had hobbies and interests.

I became a Muslim and got married at the tail end of my teens. And quite quickly, many of these hobbies and interests had to be abandoned, or fell by the wayside. But I didn’t really notice that they weren’t being replaced with anything (unless you can count religion). Why didn’t I notice? Largely because my energies were mostly directed at simply surviving. And partly because I did try to hang onto a few favourite pastimes. Trying to stand up against the pressure to drop them and behave more “appropriately,” I didn’t really have time to think about what I had already given up.

Now that I am no longer married, and have moved away from the community I used to belong to, I am realizing that there isn’t much “me” there. I work, I come home, I deal with the kids and do housework. And there’s not much else to it. I don’t really have hobbies or interests.

Didn’t I used to be told that I am creative? (Way back, when I was still in elementary and high school.) Didn’t I used to enjoy trying new things? Didn’t I used to really, really want to learn to play guitar? To travel all across the US and Canada, camping at all these cool places along the way? Wasn’t there once a time when I didn’t feel like an empty shell?

What happened to all the things that I used to like to do?

Singing: As a teenager, I sang in a couple of choirs. My voice wasn’t that great, but I had a lot of fun. I used to sing a lot at home, and when I was walking along the road if no one else was around. I knew the words to lots of folk songs and hymns. Once I became  Muslim, singing where men could possibly hear was completely out, so anything involving singing in public (like belonging to a choir) was forbidden too. Then, there was also the problem of having to avoid singing any songs with inappropriate words—basically, any songs discussing acts, emotions, desires or beliefs that were in any way at variance with conservative Muslim teachings. And in my ex’s culture, “good” women weren’t really supposed to sing anyway. It wasn’t considered modest, because “everyone knew” that female singers are just a step up from prostitutes.

Aside from singing lullabies to my babies, and making up silly words to songs to amuse my kids when they were small, I didn’t really sing for years. My efforts to interest other (convert) Muslim women I knew to get together and sing didn’t come to anything either—I’m not sure why. Even trying to write “Islamic” alternative words for kids’ songs for use at the madrasa my kids attended (and making board books to go with them) was not approved of by some of the other parents. Here I was being different, sticking out. Not really what a properly modest woman would do. It was easier just to not sing, or try to find anyone to sing with me.

Playing musical instruments: Not that great at doing this either, but again, I enjoyed doing it. I used to spend hours in my room practicing. I was in school band for four years. I remember us sitting on a flat-bed truck playing Christmas carols in the Santa Claus Parade, freezing our butts off and having a great time nonetheless. As a Muslim, I soon learned that musical instruments of any kind (except a single-sided hand-drum) were at best controversial, especially when played by women.

In the ’80’s, the Salafis were loudly denouncing the playing of musical instruments in my community and elsewhere. Some Muslims (including my ex) felt that this was too extreme, but while they enjoyed listening to some kinds of (mostly traditional) music from their home countries, they still looked down upon the men who actually played the instruments—and disapproved even more strongly of women who did so. My ex mocked me when I played, and once the kids came along, they made it even more difficult. As playing instruments was so frowned upon, it wasn’t something I felt that I could admit to wanting to do, so it was easier to just let it go. And I wasn’t much good anyway, so why bother? Just because it had once made me happy??

Listening to music: I used to listen to music for hours. All kinds of music—medieval, Renaissance, classical, folk, reggae, rock (especially ’60’s stuff), Celtic…. Once, I managed to attend a folk festival, and had a great time listening to all that music. Used to love going to the Highland Games just for the music. But as a Muslim, even listening to music was a minefield, for all the reasons mentioned above, and going to things like folk festivals was way too uncomfortable (I’d have been literally the only hijabi there!), as well as frowned upon by the Muslim community and my ex.

I did manage to buy a few cassette tapes of music I liked and listen to them. My ex also had a few, mostly music from his homeland, and I would listen to those. But this was not a pastime that I could afford to indulge in financially, and anyway, it was not the done thing to have a sound system in your living room where more conservative Muslims would see it and probably express their disapproval.

We were pretty cut off from North American popular as well as “alternative” cultures, especially once I was in The Cult, so I basically missed most of the music of the late ’80’s and the entire ’90’s. I only recently read about the riotgrrrls and discovered groups like Le Tigre—and now they’re gone!

Biking: As a teenager, I practically lived on my bike during spring, summer and fall. But once I got married and became a Muslim: No money to buy a bike, no place to keep it if I had had one. But anyway, this was the ’80’s, when even walking down the street in hijab attracted a fair amount of unpleasant attention. Riding a bike in one would have been even worse. And many Muslims in my conservative community thought that riding a bike is immodest.

Camping: I used to love all kinds of camping (tents, cabins, backpacking, canoe-tripping). My mother used to take us camping. I used to go to Girl Guide camps every summer. I was really into what passed for “survival training,” and experimented with building temporary shelters, and gathering and preparing edible wild plants on my own. But my ex didn’t like camping, so he wasn’t willing to go. Anyway, we were too poor to buy equipment we’d need. We couldn’t afford a car either. I knew another (convert) Muslim woman who was keen to go camping, and she did have access to a vehicle, a tent, etc. But this was a problem for our community, because according to Islamic law, women are not usually supposed to travel without their husbands or a close male relative. The distance and amount of time that a woman could travel alone or even with another woman were debated (some said not outside the city; others said no more than three days). But in any case, it was culturally disapproved of by my ex and his ethnic community, as well as by many other conservative Muslims we knew. Women belonged at home, not off in the woods somewhere.

Crafts: We used to do all sorts of crafts in Guides. And as this was the 70’s, lots of people were into all sorts of do-it-yourself-y stuff. Especially my mother and grandmother, who were very good at sewing, knitting, embroidery, crocheting, and so forth. My mother was also really good at basket-making, and at making things out of wood, including furniture. I was taught how to sew by hand when I was very young, and also how to do mending. I didn’t like sewing much, though—or embroidery or knitting either. And I was really awful at these things. To me, they represented stereotypical women’s work, and I didn’t see why I should learn to do them.

Bead-work was really the only craft I liked, even though it took a lot of time and patience. I beaded chokers, bookmarks, a sheath for a hunting knife.

After conversion and marriage, however, there was little space for this sort of thing. Little money to spare for buying beads, little time to do the bead-work (especially difficult when you have small children who want to be in the middle of whatever-it-is that you are doing). And my ex, his ethnic community, as well as most conservative Muslims we knew thought it was just a really odd thing to do. Not very practical. Rather a waste of time. Why even bother doing bead-work on the yoke of a dress or the back of a hijab when you can buy cheap stuff kinda like that made in China, with beads that will fall off the first time you wash it?? So what? Why is it worth doing anyway?? Don’t you have anything better to do? (Do you really have to do all this weird stuff that nobody else does? Why can’t you be more like the other sisters?)

Most of my craft-y skills ended up being used for practical purposes. Sewing Islamic clothes for myself and my kids. (I got better with practice, fortunately.) Using the left-over material scraps to make quilts. At some points, we literally couldn’t afford to buy blankets, so my rather basic quilting skills enabled us to sleep at night. These were not those kind of quilts which look like art. These were plain and severe, with very simple patterns that I could quickly put together so that we could keep warm. Even something as practical as quilting attracted some scorn from my in-laws, however, because for them, it was associated with being poor and rural. While The Cult promoted women practicing domestic, traditional crafts, North American “traditional” crafts wasn’t really good enough as far as they were concerned.

As long as I was a stay-at-home Mom, I had to keep on sewing for economic reasons, even though I didn’t like doing it. Nowadays, I don’t need to do it any more, so I don’t (except for mending). Even thinking about sewing anything brings back a raft of unpleasant memories.

So… what sorts of hobbies or pastimes were thought to be appropriate  for “good sisters” to pursue?? Maybe I could have tried pursuing those instead?

Cooking. Especially making elaborate meals from scratch, every single day. Making your own yoghurt. Baking your own bread. I did those things. I tried to get into it, and learn new recipes from other sisters. I can cook adequately. But it was always turned into this sort of competition, that was supposed to prove how good a wife and mother you are. Because every true woman of course loves to cook, and is good at it… and women who aren’t have somehow fundamentally failed at being women. Especially in The Cult. So to this day, I hate cooking. I do it as little as possible. It has too much baggage to be at all enjoyable.

Entertaining guests. Typically, your husband’s friends. Definitely, people approved of by your husband and the community. Involves a huge amount of cooking and cleaning, which I basically had to do by myself. Also involves people scrutinizing your cooking abilities and the cleanliness of your house, as well as the behaviour of your kids—and then probably gossiping about what they saw. Ugh. I didn’t find it enjoyable because it was just too stressful. Whatever went wrong (dinner delayed, kids whiny) would be seen as a failure on my part, and my part alone. I had failed (again!) to be a Good Muslim Woman who knows how to Show Proper Hospitality To Her Husband’s Guests. This wasn’t recreation, this was Judgment Day. I’m not an extrovert, so I found it pretty trying all around.

Cleaning and decorating the house. I am absolutely not the kind of person who is any good at interior decorating or anything like that. I also don’t like cleaning. I clean because I can’t stand dirt and mess, but I’m not exactly a clean freak. Over the years, I have gotten a lot of criticism from my ex (who wasn’t that neat himself), his ethnic community, and various conservative Muslims for my evidently low levels of interest in such womanly pastimes.

Prayer, reciting the Quran, dhikr (preferably alone, in the privacy of your own home). Yes, I did plenty of all three. But dare I say it—this is no substitute for having one’s own interests or hobbies.

To conclude: I did manage to hang onto a few interests, but lost most of them for a number of complex reasons. In the process, I lost parts of myself. I lost a sense of my own identity, apart from being someone’s wife, someone’s mother, and trying to fit into this highly restrictive mold of True Muslim Womanhood that wasn’t really me at all. I couldn’t fit the mold no matter how much I tried. So, trying to get into the “approved pastimes” turned out to be an exercise in reinforcing my internal sense of inadequacy. The mold wasn’t me, so there must be something deeply wrong with me. That was the message that I internalized, and it is with me to this day.

I am not sure how to go about finding me again, or if it’s even possible after all this time. But I am working on it, bit by bit.

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  1. #1 by fasttimesinpalestine on May 8, 2012 - 10:18 pm

    Thanks for sharing your experience. Don’t worry, you are still in there. It may just take some time, space, and stillness to find it. My experience was very different, though in some ways similar. I grew up in a small conservative Christian town, where I was expected to behave in certain ways, the overriding terror (not for me, I didn’t care, but for certain other members of my family) being that someone might disapprove and gossip about us. We had to be a “good” family. We couldn’t possibly be one of “those” families, or even in any way resemble them. I left as soon as I could.

    Then I threw myself into academics and wound up at an elite university, where they have their own unspoken expectations — for example, you will make enough money to be upper middle class at least, and you will get a “real” job on Wall Street or at a university, etc. It was incredibly hard to buck all of that, get a bartending job to save money, and travel and write with no destination or purpose in mind, just because it was the only thing I could think of to do that didn’t fill me with dread.

    It sounds decadent as I type it (even though I often lived on couches or in closets, and almost never had health insurance, and sometimes ate food that was otherwise going to be thrown away), and I felt totally ridiculous to want to be a travel writer (doesn’t everybody?), but it all worked out in the end. It just took a couple of years of wandering around and doing things I enjoyed until a purpose found me. Meanwhile, I was enjoying myself, even though I was poor and weird. Who was I hurting, living that way? No one.

    Of course there were lots of hard time, and lots of self-doubt, but overall things have always trended toward the better. Inshallah it will continue. Life is good, al hamdulillah. Whether narrow-minded people realize it or not.

  2. #2 by xcwn on May 10, 2012 - 12:00 am

    Thank you for commenting. You indirectly bring up a good point—that the fact that now after all these years I have the space to ask the question of where “I” am and how I can find “myself” again does show that I’m making progress at digging myself out of the hole that I was in for so long. After all, for years I couldn’t even ask such questions.

  3. #3 by aliya on May 10, 2012 - 9:15 pm

    I tried to do all the things you named here in this piece, and almost lost myself in the process. Now I refuse to give up the things that give me joy, because what is the sense of finding God, if you can’t enjoy the life you have now since finding God? Its almost like the catholic version of if God is to have favor upon you, you have to suffer and give up all things of the world. I am still alive darn it, and to much excess eventually results in burnout. I am a police officer, a mother, a wife, a muslimah, and I show my two Borzoi, (Russian wolfhounds) at dog shows all over the east coast, in hijab!

    • #4 by xcwn on May 10, 2012 - 11:45 pm

      Aliya, thank you for your comment. Russian wolfhounds are amazing animals. I’m glad you have managed to reclaim yourself.

  4. #5 by Freedom2B on May 29, 2012 - 11:53 pm

    Thank you.

  1. My “Conversion” Story (Part III) | Thinking Your Way Out

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