that’s the problem with showing those weak and aching parts of you that make you human. it gives other humans the license to point at you, sneeringly, and pretend they don’t have human parts too.
…coming soon inshaaAllah: even if, a glimpse into the tears and rage of the life of Umm Zakiyyah
Emotions I Couldn’t Control
“Do women have the right to exist in marriage?” my husband said. “This is a really important issue to discuss.”
It was a rhetorical question, meant to answer itself, meant to point to the absurdity of denying women the right to think for themselves, the right to utilize their God-given talents and intelligence to benefit the world (and themselves), and the right to be seen—really seen—by their husbands. It was meant to imply that marriage for a Muslim woman was never meant to be an indefinite prison sentence, and that being “a righteous wife” was never meant as solitary confinement, a God-issued command for women to be locked away, suffocated by four solitary walls until death.
But it hit me hard, that question. It hit me in a space I didn’t even know I possessed.
And I cried.
I didn’t mean to. I didn’t want to. This was a family business meeting after all. But I should have known this would happen. It was just one in a string of emotional outbursts I’d had in the last several months.
“I’m sorry,” I said quickly, just as he said the same to me.
We were quiet for a moment. I kept my head down.
I didn’t like this side of me, this weakness, this vulnerability laid wide open for the world to see. It was like an invisible knife hovering, a blade with a mind and will of its own, threatening to expose my heart to others before I gave permission even to myself to see what lay within.
This was a discomfiting experience, having emotions I couldn’t control.
A Tough Little Girl
I’d learned in early childhood to hide how I really felt. In fact, I tried my best to feel nothing at all. When I was four years old, I’d trained myself to go inside myself. It was my hiding place. And it allowed me to put on my tough face, the face of the academic, the “smart girl” who won essay contests and math competitions at public school, and who memorized the most Qur’an at Muslim weekend school—and who was the obedient, “good girl” making her parents proud at home.
There were times that I cried when I was young. But in my memory, it wasn’t very often. And it was almost never in front of others, especially not at school. If tears ever escaped in public, it was because there was no space left inside me to contain them anymore. But that was rare, because I spent nearly every waking hour making sure they had ample space to settle within me, and remain unseen.
Nobody cares, so suck it up. That’s what I told myself. It was a motto of sorts, and I believed it. And truth be told, to a large extent, I still do today.
Sometimes I try to convince myself that the world isn’t as cold as it feels. But I always wear my proverbial heavy coat, face mask, and thick gloves, you know, just in case.
But here I was, at a family business meeting with my coat, mask, and gloves snatched from me, and I was crying over a rhetorical question that wasn’t aimed at me.
Muslims Don’t Get Depressed, or So They Say
Muslims don’t get depressed, I heard an Islamic teacher say years ago. And like the foolish student of books and classes I was at the time, I thought it was true. So it didn’t occur to me that my frequent insomnia, daily migraines, and loss of appetite—and diminished desire to live—could be explained by an emotional wounding of the spirit.
Besides, it was my fault that I was hurting, I told myself. I had no right to my pain. I had no right to my feelings. I had no right to my self. This is what it meant to be a “good Muslim,” and I was determined to be good.
Forgive and overlook. Forgive and overlook. Don’t you want Allah to forgive you?
It never occurred to me that it made no sense to discuss forgiveness before I even acknowledged the validity of my pain—and the reality of who’d inflicted it. Otherwise, exactly what and whom was I forgiving in the first place? And why?
Never mind that Allah encouraging forgiveness was never meant as emotional self-flagellation in which you punished yourself for feeling hurt or anger at all. But that’s a different topic altogether.
I was depressed, and I couldn’t identify it as such, because it didn’t exist. At least not for people like me—Muslims who prayed and fasted and read Qur’an every day.
And wishing for death…well, I just wanted to go to Jannah (sooner rather than later). So that was a good thing, right?
I’m not sure where this idea came from, that Muslims don’t get depressed (or in some circles, that good Muslims don’t get depressed). But it certainly was embraced as divine truth amongst Muslims I’d known since childhood and those I’d befriended later in life. It was repeated so much that it didn’t really occur to me to question or doubt it. It was like part of the shahaadah (testimony of faith) itself.
But slowly and surely, I was becoming MIA—missing in action—where I should have been very much present and aware of myself. And then, to add insult to injury, I kept going back to the people who’d hurt me. And then they gloated in my pain.
I didn’t know much about toxic relationships either at that time, and the magnetic pull of them when you haven’t engaged in honest healing of the self. But healing was an impossibility at the time, because I hadn’t even given myself permission to feel hurt.
The Few Who Cared
I’m not going to say that no one checked on me or cared for me during that very difficult time. Because there were a few sisters who did, may Allah bless them. But I was in such a fog that I didn’t even know what they were doing and why. One neighbor would come over whenever my husband traveled, and she’d sleep on the foot of my bed. I just thought she was a really nice person who enjoyed grown-up slumber parties, though I doubt my company was much fun.
Some sisters even tried to understand what was bothering me. But I said I was fine. I didn’t understand why they thought anything was bothering me at all. But I wasn’t offended so much as I was perplexed.
I know today, they knew I’d gone missing. And they were trying to help me find myself.
Spiritual Crisis and Nearly Leaving Islam
When I did the video I Never Thought It Would Be Me and then published the book and video series I Almost Left Islam, I was nervous and scared. It was the first time I’d shared something so personal with the world. But I knew I had to do something, say something—to save myself from slipping further into the abyss. I didn’t want to throw away my soul. I already knew what that meant. But my soul was losing the battle that my suffering spirit had waged against it. And I felt powerless to stop it. I was too weak.
And frankly, a part of me had stopped caring what was right or wrong. But there was a deeper part, the part of my soul that hadn’t yet been defeated, that knew I did care.
There were so many emotions gong on inside me, not the least of which was shame. There were those who’d looked up to me, even saw me as a spiritual anchor of sorts. How could I face them?
But by then, I was recovering from rock-bottom, and I was slowly rebuilding my existence, bi’idhnillah, after feeling I couldn’t be Muslim anymore. I wanted to be, but I couldn’t be. At least that’s what I’d thought.
But by Allah’s mercy, I was able to reclaim my faith by telling the truth, my truth, never mind the consequences or negative judgment from people. My soul had been losing the battle against my nafs, and I truly believed that speaking up about my struggles would help it ultimately win.
Umm Zakiyyah is the internationally acclaimed author of twenty books, including the If I Should Speak trilogy, Muslim Girl, His Other Wife and the self-help book for Muslim survivors of abuse: Reverencing the Wombs That Broke You. Her latest novel His Other Wife is now a short film.
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