Being an immigrant is so challenging. For as long as I can remember, I personally have grappled with an identity crisis. A poem I recently found online describes it best. It said:
here you are
too foreign for home
too foreign for here.
never enough for both.
When I was younger—in middle school or so—my mother would threaten me with the prospect of shipping me off to our native country as a form of punishment for talking back or acting out in a way that she deemed inappropriate. For the longest time, I actually resented where I came from and never wanted to go back because I saw it as an awful, backwards and primitive place where I wouldn’t have the same freedoms my mom claimed that I have—mind you, in comparison to my friends, I was barely allowed out to begin with. I didn’t think that I was a bad child. In fact, I thought I was pretty obedient.
Maybe I talked back sometimes, maybe I would go to a middle school party or two, but while my friends pushed back and rebelled against their parents, if my mom said “no,” then it ultimately meant no. There was no sneaking out through the fire escape, no coming home after the sun went down, and definitely no talk of boys—not even the one back in the motherland. Much to my friends’ confusion, I was every much the doting, relatively docile daughter under my parent’s roof. It helped that later on, in high school, most of my friends were Muslim and we all shared in the same pain—partaking in our secret rebellions during daylight hours every once in a blue moon.
…I actually resented where I came from…
Fast forward to college when my somewhat rocky relationship with my mother truly began to crack into the fragile, tumultuous one it is today. While my parents, especially my dad, wanted to go back home (I have my doubts they will ever feel at “home” anywhere again), it was obvious that my and my sibling’s lives were here. Somehow, it didn’t take much convincing for my mother and father to let me go away for school. I still remember my best friend Noelle’s mother’s words—as if she said them just yesterday and not (CRINGE) nearly a decade ago. “Your mother is too strict on you,” she said. “You’re going to go to find all this freedom in college and go wild.”
Of course, this was my parents’ worst fear and they expected the exact opposite. They wanted me back home often—every weekend even. With my workload and social life and, yes, my new found, well-deserved freedom, I wasn’t as inclined to comply. Eventually, I joined a sorority which to my mother was the biggest symbol of a new me: a me she didn’t recognize, a me that spoke like [according to her] a shallow, vapid blonde, a me that wasn’t the little girl she dreamt about before giving birth to me—a dream she thought was so prophetic and beautiful that to this day she has yet to share with me since she feels I don’t deserve to know it.
My mom could never quite get over the fact that, in her eyes, college made me turn away from my family and from who I was—never mind the fact that I still cared fiercely about their health and happiness and hadn’t changed, rather I was discovering who I was in the first place. I’m still trying to figure that out.
When I graduated and moved back home, tensions were at an all-time high. After five years of doing everything at my own pace and being in control of my own life, getting back to living under their rules and asking for permission to do things like take a walk in the park past 9pm made me feel like I was five years old. I understood their views and I respected them—this is not how things are done where we come from—but I strongly disagreed. After nearly a year post-college of living at home, I decided to take the plunge and move out. Despite it not being the smartest financial decision, I felt it would be best for all of us. I could live under my own rules and my parents wouldn’t have to witness me living in a way they disapproved of. Besides, there was only so much lying I could do every time I wanted to go out with my friends or my then new boyfriend. It was taxing.
The day that my mother found out about my non-Muslim boyfriend, an all-out war occurred at home. It was right before my 24th birthday, we were fighting about something or other as we were apt to do before he was even in the picture. After months of testing her patience with my relationship, she suggested mid-fight that I should just convert to Judaism and marry the boyfriend she had an inkling I had. I retorted with a defiant, “Maybe I will.”
Since then, despite our mother dearest drama, I have tried so hard to form my own relationship with God and religion. There is not a single person or Islamic scholar on this earth who can convince me that my relationship is wrong, dirty, or haram. Love is love is love. I truly believe that. And any person or deity who would hurt or condemn someone for what their heart purely feels is no person or deity I want anything to do with. While I recognize my mother has sacrificed so much for me and worked endlessly to provide for us, she—not my boyfriend—plays a tremendous role in my on-again, off-again relationship with God and Islam.
At 25 years old, I no longer can stand to be told what to do and to be treated like a child. Each time she nags at me to pray, I have to resist the urge to roll my eyes. When she demands my siblings and I watch videos about the role of the mother in Islam because she’ll ask us questions to assess our knowledge, I cringe. Her dismissal of my anxiety – an actual, sometimes debilitating mental health issue that often strikes me with panic attacks so severe I genuinely think I am going to have a heart attack and have had to go to the ER more than once – as something that I’m plagued with because I have no faith makes me doubt God. But the most revolting thing that she does that makes me want nothing to do with Islam at all – is belittle the spiritual relationship I try so desperately to hold onto.
More often than not, my mother all but tells me I’m not a Muslim because I don’t pray or I’m not a Muslim because I choose to focus more on the compassionate, merciful attributes of God rather than the vengeful, scary God who will condemn me to an eternity in hell because I don’t keep my mouth shut when my parents upset or hurt me.
My version of God, she told me once this Ramadan, was the Western, Christian version. Well I imagined hers as this powerful, vindictive being willing to sacrifice innocent people through horrific, inexplicable, natural incidents to show human beings that He was superior and that they had become much too arrogant and godless. That left a very bitter taste in my mouth. If her judgmental interpretation of Islam is the right way, well then color me atheist.
And while she critiques me for being this awful kafir—which is, by the way, haram—she lives in denial, praying that with God’s help, I’ll have an epiphany, turn into a docile, complacent Muslim woman who magically falls out of love with her non-Muslim boyfriend and finds a halal soulmate instead. Meanwhile, the vision I have-had of Islam is one in which you love thy neighbor—not treat him like a social leper because he was born into another faith—one, might I add, that the Holy Quran acknowledges and holds to the highest esteem.
I wanted so much for my boyfriend to partake in iftar with us this Ramadan. My heart felt like it could burst when he brought up participating in iftar himself – I had never mentioned the word to him. He was just curious to know more about something that
was is (I just don’t know anymore) important to me so he did his own research. Of course, he longed for more than just having me be the bridge between him and my family and culture. I was ecstatic that he was taking an interest despite my family being a roadblock. I always joke that I love participating in Passover Seder and learning about his traditions more than he does so seeing him take an interest in something that’s such a big part of mine and my family’s life even though he’s not very religious at all made me indescribably happy.
If her judgmental interpretation of Islam is the right way, well then color me atheist.
I thought that maybe my mother would feel the same. After all, her biggest fear is that my relationship will cause me to lose sight of our family’s century-old traditions and background. I envisioned him breaking our fast with us and watching my father lead my siblings and mother in prayer. Personally, after the first couple days of Ramadan, my mom’s badgering and judgment subconsciously hardened my heart towards prayer. I would tell myself “Okay, today is the day where I’ll get it right,” but eventually my heart was not truly in it. Still, I loved hearing my dad recite verses from the Quran before we all sat down to eat and I thought it would be an interesting learning experience for my boyfriend.
Unfortunately, my dream didn’t come true. As crushing and as defeating as my mother’s silent “no” felt, it was nothing compared to how much my heart broke for my boyfriend. I soon became angry… livid, even. How could she call herself a Muslim and close her heart off to an innocent man who wanted to learn more about this religion? If that was Islam, well then I was closing my heart off too. To my religion – and to her.
Don’t get me wrong—I love my mother. She is fierce, intelligent, and strong; the backbone of our family. But she is also very stubborn and close-minded. She believes that her way is the only right way and doesn’t understand why everyone else wouldn’t just follow suit. But despite the more aggressive personality traits that clash with mine, I know that she is not fully to blame for her way of thinking. She grew up in a Muslim country that was taken over by severe nationalism and patriarchy after it gained its independence.
While women hold higher degrees and make more than men do, it’s the women you’ll find taking care of the house while slaying their powerful careers, who have to be careful what they wear to avoid lewd attention from men on the streets, who shouldn’t be seen smoking cigarettes while walking down the street and, unfortunately it’s often the women who are blamed for the ummah’s problems and have fatwas issued against them by certain clergymen.
It comes as no surprise that my mother, born and bred in a culture (not religion) that undermines women and feels children should be seen but never heard, is aghast and disgusted by the liberal, outspoken, often dramatic and sometimes bitchy daughter I can be. It’s not because I’m American, it’s because I’m a strong, independent woman raised in 2016. There are plenty of women just like me in my native country.
That being said, I expect more from Islam. I expect the empathy I crave that I believe is engrained in every religion. I yearn for the day my mother realizes that just because I don’t practice the way she believes I should be practicing or because I do things she doesn’t agree with doesn’t mean I’m not a Muslim. Like so many Westerners, she is mistaking culture for religion. And in doing so, she—not my Jew-ish boyfriend—inevitably turns me away from Islam, leaving a bad taste of it in my mouth that I’m itching to wash out. Because if her patriarchal interpretation and actions constitute “legitimate” Islam, then I want nothing to do with it. I know that I shouldn’t let my relationship with anyone define my relationship with God, but with the callous, overwhelming way that my mother has been acting though she’s so pious, can you blame me?