Editor’s Notes: To celebrate International Women’s Day, we are highlighting women’s community efforts, challenges, and perspectives. As we celebrate International Women’s Day, we also hope that it serves as a reminder that women in Islam should not only be recognized on this day but should be recognized every day and appreciated for their work, efforts, and contributions to our families and our societies.
I was born into this world, and when I opened my ears I heard them calling me princess. I didn’t know what this meant, but I started noticing the patterns. They clad me in the prettiest frills and I was protected from every fall. My tears were precious, my demands were answered, and I was the delicate joy of the house. Being a girl was the best gift I could have received.
They bought me doll houses, kitchen sets, and even a plastic iron to iron out my doll dresses. I had a dozen dolls that I taught each day. The best was when I could put on make-up, my prettiest dress, and high heels and walk around my room feeling like a grown-up. I made the best soups using water and soil and had teatime parties with my imaginary friends.
When I played with my cousins, they would use a black pen to make henna designs on my hands, and they would use the juice of crushed red petals to redden my lips. They would pluck jasmines to put in my hair and other flowers to place as rings in between my fingers. They would then cover my face with a thin white cloth, and I would pretend to be the shyest bride. Role-playing was always fun.
I grew up loving my place in this world. I was a caretaker and a mother, but best of all, I was a princess. I loved my floor-length dresses that flowed behind me. I loved acting like I was breastfeeding my baby doll, and cooking was my hobby.
My brother was my protector when we were out. He would be the one to buy candy on his way back from the mosque, and he would be the one to carry all the heavy bags on our way back home after shopping. I always felt safe when I walked by his side.
My dad had warm arms that cuddled me and big muscles I would boast about to my friends. “My dad is stronger than your dad,” was what we would compete about. Whatever I laid my eyes on, my dad made sure to bring it into my hands. He was my caretaker, the one that made my dreams come true.
Then I grew older and went to school. On my second day at school, I cried because I hated it there. My teachers were cruel to me and did not treat me royally; what I was used to. Didn’t they realize that I was a princess? They made me cry when I did not complete my homework and pinched my ears when I misspelled words. Reality started hitting me. I was not a princess in the real big world.
I came to age and they forced me to cover up. I was pushed behind closed doors and was banned from playing in the parks. "The boys will see," they said. My world started getting claustrophobic. Why am I being hidden? Am I not the precious princess they want to show off anymore?
They sent me to college and made sure to remind me of the great privilege I had. "Look at the girls around you cooking and cleaning, you are lucky we are sending you to study further. But remember, as soon as your knight arrives, your first duty would be to serve him." And so I studied knowing this would be temporary, and whenever I felt like my performance was poor, I knew there was going to be an outlet. My knight in shining armour was surely going to come save me during my weakest moments.
The day arrived for me to be introduced to my prince. I was a princess all over again. My family fulfilled all my childhood dreams. I had my gown. My hair was put up and I carried the best selection of roses. My family and friends congratulated me as though getting married was a big accomplishment. I was confused. I knew I had not worked for this, that this marriage was blind and arranged. Was I being congratulated because someone noticed my existence and decided to propose? Was it indeed a privilege to get married because so many others had not been noticed?
On my wedding night, I left with my groom, but I did not feel comfortable with him. How was I to live with a man that I had never gotten to know? Our problems stemmed from having different gender role expectations. I needed to be cheery, pimped, and cooking or cleaning every moment of my day, and he get to cross his feet on the coffee table and watch all the TV he could possibly fit in a day. He was the master, and I was the slave. Along with that, I needed to start working so that I could provide for the family. My husband said we could not survive on one income, and since I had a certificate, I needed to work.
I got pregnant but I was also the more reliable breadwinner of the family. Due to his lack of commitment to his work, he got laid off. Our relationship only got worse as I was expected to give, but I was not receiving anything but commands and demands. After a year, we decided to end the marriage. I walked back home with a baby in my arms and a heart that was bleeding from all sides.
I had to go to work to provide for my son's education, I needed him to get what he would need in his life. I put away all my gowns and opted for pants under my abaya to protect me when I had to board the busses to get to work. I put away all my baking utensils and opted for fast food as I was always on the run.
I needed to perform at work so that I could secure my job and my son's future. I spent just as much time as the men in the company but I was paid less because I was a woman and I “didn't have to support my family”. When I spoke up for my rights and explained that I was a single mother, I was shoved aside and conveniently branded a feminist because we know God forbid you stand up for your rights... When I kept quiet and let my pain flow in the form of tears, I was asked if I was hormonal.
Many ask why I chose a career, but I explain to them that I had no choice but to go out and work so that I can provide for myself and my child. I had been taught that my place was in the palace where I nurtured, loved, and provided warmth for my prince and kids. The picture I had painted on my canvas throughout my young years was only a dream that I now hope to be fulfilled in Jannah.
Where are you the men of my ummah? Where are you the likes of my father, the caretaker, and my brother, the protector?
I was blindly pushed into this unexpected world and you wonder why I have become outspoken? You have let me down, and I have to pick up the slack.
When you look at me and see a strong and independent woman, I hope you realize that this woman has deep fears and shattered dreams. When you feel like I intimidate you because I know what I want in life, know that having dealt with a person of your likeness has pushed me to be decisive.
When you wonder why I have this great urge to save the world, know that I watched mine slip away from my grip and I took up the task to create a better future: if not for me, then at least for the other girls and women around me.