I was walking outside with my daughter last week in a neighborhood we used to live in, back when we lived a conservative Muslim life. It was a hot sunny day, and she was wearing a sleeveless t-shirt and tight pants. There was nobody out on the street except a few teenage boys playing basketball. They were down at the other end, and they weren’t looking at us.
“I wonder how many Muslims are looking at me right now, and saying, ‘tif!‘,” my daughter said to me.
I was immediately shocked and dismayed. What on earth had brought that on?—there was nobody near us, even! And why would she be worrying about people peering out at us through their curtains, this early in the morning?? But her intonation of the “tif!” was dead on, unfortunately. She was reproducing an expression that she had heard many times from her father, his friends, and his relatives, especially when they were discussing girls’ behavior that they strongly disapproved of.
But somehow, I had thought that she had not really been affected by this sort of judgmentalness-on-steroids that tends to be visited on girls and women. At least, not nearly as much as her older sister, who had borne the brunt of family and community disapproval when she dehijabed, stopped practicing, and made it clear that she was going to live her life her own way.
I told her, rather lamely, that I hadn’t thought that this sort of thing had affected her.
“But I do remember,” she answered. “People don’t think I do. The others [her older siblings] say, ‘You weren’t there. You didn’t see that.’ But I did. I remember it all.”
I was dumbfounded. What are these kids discussing about the past when adults aren’t listening??
“But… you didn’t ever attend madrasa. The others did, but you didn’t. And you didn’t go to nearly the same number of events as the others…” I ramble on, rather at a loss for words. I think to myself: “You never really wore hijab. Certainly not full-time, or to school. You didn’t grow up with anything like the same degree of surveillance of your every move. What is going on?”
I looked at her. How conflicted she is. How she wants to live her life her own way, and also wants to maintain a good relationship with her father, his family… and therefore, to avoid offending the standards of the conservative faction of his ethnic community. How she wants to be accepted and loved by them unconditionally, and how she knows on some level that this is impossible. And how unhappy this makes her.
And I don’t know what to do. Except to love her myself, unconditionally. But that can’t make up for others that don’t, and don’t in the name of God and moral values. Nothing can, really.