The last time I saw my paternal grandmother, Zarifah (may Allah swt have mercy on her), who I was nicknamed after, was the summer before she passed, in 2005, when we took a family vacation to Palestine. One of the funniest memories I have from that time was when she slapped my arm when I wore a cap-sleeved top to a wedding in the village. “Why can’t you be good like your sister and wear longer sleeves?” she shouted at me (in Arabic, of course). My sister was wearing my shirt, mind you, but I knew better than to talk back to my grandmother just to tell her that. Besides, it wouldn’t have changed the fact that, to her, I wasn’t dressed as conservatively as she would have preferred.
When my family lived in Palestine from 1999-2001, she stayed with us for periods of time and I will always remember those as formative years because that was when I learned the most about who she was and what she had been through. And it’s when she became the feminist hero that has inspired and shaped the woman I have become.
Before then, there were only two other times I saw my grandmother: when she visited us in America and when we spent a summer in Palestine, both in the early 90’s. She and my grandfather had visited America separately, but that didn’t seem out of the ordinary because my parents used to take separate vacations to Palestine over the years. When we moved to Palestine in 1999 was when the realization came to me. First, I noticed that my grandmother and grandfather (may Allah swt have mercy on them both) always visited us separately. Then, on separate occasions, I heard someone refer to “his house” and “her house.” And after a few other things didn’t add up in my 11-year old mind, I finally questioned it.
“Your grandmother and grandfather have their own homes.”
“So, they’re divorced?”
“What does that mean?”
“Your grandfather has a new wife and he lives with her.”
“New wife? So, they are divorced?”
“Not exactly. Stop asking questions!”
In the time she lived with us, she taught me a lot, not the least of which was how to pray taraweeh during Ramadan. And at a time when I first began to deal with body-image issues and pre-teen melodrama (because middle school is the worst part of life), I was learning about adult life from my grandmother. In her older years, she needed a lot of help doing small tasks and taking care of herself, so while my friends were all concerned about making phone calls to boys without getting caught, I was walking my grandmother to the places she wanted to go — holding her arm as we walked up and down the village hills. And when the other girls were at home writing notes to the boys they were secretly dating, I was putting aside my own bashfulness to help my grandmother navigate the “American” shower we had in our house, since she had difficulty bathing on her own. She would talk to me about life and people in the village while I brushed her hair and braided it so it tucked neatly under her scarf because her hands would start to shake when she had to hold them above her head for too long.
You mature pretty quickly when you get such an in-depth view of what it looks like on that side of life. I saw so clearly what life put her through when I had to help her with tasks that we would view as simple or mundane. In my time with her, I learned the importance of expressing love, care, and respect for others in your actions, not just your words, and the true meaning of loyalty and commitment to another. At the time, I didn’t think I had anything to gain from spending time with my grandmother or helping her with the things I did when I could have been out being carefree. But I still always did it. And I’m glad because when I think about it now, I know I would really hate myself for not supporting her after all she had been through.
What I eventually found out was that after decades of living with my grandfather, dedicating her life to being a doting wife and mother to 8 children (who were all adults at this point), and even after becoming a grandmother, my grandfather made the decision to take a second wife.
In Islam (and in countries where polygamy is legal), it’s permitted for a man to have multiple wives and, thus, my grandmother didn’t stand in the way of her husband’s pursuit. But she sure as hell took a stand. She didn’t chase him or beg him to stay. She told him that he was free to do as he pleased, but that her door was no longer open to him. He wasn’t going to go back and forth from wife to wife. And she didn’t let him back into her bed or her home. She made the brave decision to live self-sufficiently and without a husband.
At this point, all of my aunts and uncles were married except my father. He was a teenager at the time, so he remained with my grandmother until he married my mom years later. My dad was my grandmother’s pride and joy. She spoiled him like no other. When my mom came along, my grandmother did not think she was good enough. And she certainly didn’t keep that opinion to herself. But as critical as she was of my mom over the years, the one thing my mom will never forget was when my grandmother told her that if my father, her golden child, ever decided to do what his father did, she gave my mother permission to poison him. My grandmother never wanted to see another woman go through the same pain and hurt she did.
It has taken me years to understand how she could remain so poised and positive about the circumstances of her life — a life that was, for the most part, dictated by another person’s whims and choices. But as I grew up, moving through life and navigating social relationships, I started to learn how to accept that choices like this are only a reflection of the individual who made them, and not necessarily the other people involved. And anyone who doesn’t stay in your life of their own will and choice is not giving you the genuine and authentic relationship you deserve anyway. Let them leave. There’s no reason to tie yourself in knots about it, or worse, to bend over backwards to convince them you’re worthy of them sticking around. Nor is there any reason — AT ALL — to use this opportunity to hone your revenge skills by stalking, harassing, or sabotaging, etc., him and anyone involved in his rejection of you.
At a time when I see women put up with utter nonsense and pure bullshit from the men in their lives, it makes me proud that my grandmother stood up for herself in her own way and did what was right for her. Two Islamic sayings come to mind when I think of what I’ve learned from my grandmother:
- My heart is at ease knowing what was meant for me will never miss me and what misses me was never meant for me.
- And do you cry over that which has passed? I swear to you, if there was any good in it, it would have stayed.
My grandmother taught me that your value is not rooted in the success of a marriage. It’s not rooted in any kind of earthly relationship at all. Genuine independence and self-worth is cultivated by finding the best way to improve your connection with Allah swt. My grandmother’s example showed me how important it is to create a life for yourself that isn’t rooted in the fleeting feelings of others.
My grandmother chose not to be defined by the actions of her husband. Rather, she created her own identity by living every day of those three decades she was on her own with the highest levels of faith, grace, and decorum. She was never underestimated and always highly revered. She remains the woman whose example left a lasting impression on my heart and on my life. That is what a hero is to me.