I was walking back to the metro station in D.C. after my African dance class one Saturday morning when I spotted some street vendors selling various Afro-centric paraphernalia. It was late February and the snow had melted but the air was still a bit cold, though nothing like I’d experienced back home. The weather hadn’t kept me from dressing in my newfound style though. I was wearing a fitting button-up sweater that stopped at my waist and a wrap-around skirt that hid my knit pants I’d worn for class but accented what the pants had during class. I was conscious of how my low-heel black leather boots complimented the outfit, and I wasn’t yet ready to get on the train and return to campus. I wanted to be noticed, so I lingered in front of the vendors, who were mostly African-American men, and pretended to be interested in buying something.
A shirt caught my eye and I immediately picked it up. “Some have brains. Some have beauty. Fortunately, I have both.”
I grinned from ear-to-ear. This shirt definitely had my name written all over it. After finding out how much it cost, I handed the vendor a twenty-dollar bill and folded the T-shirt before putting it into my black shoulder bag I used for my dance class towel and clothes.
I heard the catcalling a moment after I decided that I had tired of being outside. I had never heard the derogatory whistling and sexual innuendoes directed at me before, so I actually turned and looked at the homeless man, who was obviously intoxicated. At the sight of him, my stomach churned and I quickly turned and walked faster, feeling my loneliness and vulnerability at that moment. He kept at it and complimented the curves Anita and Felicia had so meticulously directed me to accent “modestly” and he expressed desires so specific in their inappropriateness that my legs weakened. I found myself wishing I could hide in my usual clothes and be in my parents’ home and church right then.
The man followed me to the train station, and unfortunately it was still too early in the afternoon for the station to be comfortably crowded. I wished someone, anyone, would tell him to mind his business, to leave me alone. But everyone walked on as if his harassment were as normal as the day itself. Even when he actually put his hands on me and I recoiled with a shriek, the most I received from passers-by was a double take or a frown. Not even the station security guard I spotted nearby raised an eyebrow although an expression of disapproval was clear on his face before he was distracted by something else.
My heart was drumming in my chest, and I was afraid to reach into my purse to retrieve the money I’d stashed there for the nominal train fare. I couldn’t just jump over the rotating entrance bars although I so ardently wanted to in order to escape this sociopath, so I kept walking and pretended to look for someone as I found myself pacing back and forth in front of the payment area.
He continued his innuendoes and again he grew so close that I could smell his foul stench. My eyes burned in fear and frustration and I found myself guided by his surreptitious urging around a small corner that a great many people were not likely to venture. At this point, he moved to embrace me, and my survival instincts kicked in. My hands flew and I felt my purse and bag drop to the crease at my elbow, obstructing my abilities to defend myself fully. Unperturbed, he continued tugging at my sweater and touching me, as if I were his long lost girlfriend.
I finally found my voice enough to scream for help. His face changed and his actions halted, and he stared at me as if seeing me for the first time. I hollered again, and he frowned at me as though I’d misled and disappointed him. Cursing me, he turned and left me alone, mumbling something to himself and shaking his head in dismay as he walked away.
Spent, I fell to my knees and took concentrated breaths to steady myself. A moment later, the security guard rounded the corner, and the sight of him infuriated me. He asked if I was all right, and I told him to go to Hell.
Ignoring my rudeness, he helped me to my feet and asked again if I was all right. I yanked my arm free of him and felt the hotness in my cheeks and the familiar throbbing in my head. My eyes welled as I stumbled slightly then walked toward the payment area, where I retrieved my money and paid for my ride home. But I fought the tears, determined to get home without breaking down.
On the train ride home, I counted the seconds until the train arrived at College Park station. On the bus, I relaxed somewhat and felt myself shaking at the realization that I was almost home. The bus pulled in front of the stop nearest my dormitory, and I couldn’t keep myself from walking at an unnaturally fast pace to my room.
Once inside, I found the room empty and I immediately broke down, not bothering to reach my bed before I collapsed. My crying was so terrible that my stomach heaved more than once and I lay on the floor relieved to be home. But more than anything I was horribly shaken and felt the depths of darkness that I’d fallen into in my search for spiritual freedom and self worth.
And I’d found neither.
I didn’t attend my African dance classes after that. But I continued to exercise my freedom of choice in fashion although I didn’t have enough courage to venture beyond University of Maryland grounds to share it with the world. I cannot lie, I was very tempted to crawl back into my shell of being a daughter of The Church and hide in my father’s idea of modesty and appropriate dress. But I rebelled against this inclination. In my head, I heard my feminist psychology professors cautioning us to never blame the victim, to never blame the woman, to never blame yourself. But there was another voice in my head telling me that I was, somehow, at fault.
I knew that I wasn’t culpable for the crime that the man could have easily seen to completion that day. But, intuitively, I also knew that divorcing myself from culpability entirely would do nothing to protect myself in the future.
Years later when, as a Muslim, I read in the Qur’an the verse commanding believing women to wear the jilbaab—the large, loose outer garment worn over a woman’s normal clothes, I pondered the Creator’s reason for this command: “That is more suitable, that they will be known (as believers) and not abused.” As much as the feminist remnants in me wanted to argue that men did not discriminate between the covered and the uncovered, I knew my experience before and after wearing Islamic garb was testimony against this philosophy. Naturally, Islam recognized that there were those men who would verbally and physically harass women regardless of how they dressed, but it also recognized that women were respected most when they covered as pious women had for generations.
At the time of the train station incident, the words of my feminist professors were ones with which I agreed in theory but ones I found difficulty living in testimony to because of my experience. Yes, women should be respected regardless of how they dress, of where they work, or what they deem appropriate behavior. But would they?
In my head, I heard my father saying that there were only two types of respect in this world—the kind that is given from the goodness of a person’s heart, and the kind that is earned by the virtuousness of a person’s actions. “And the wise person puts himself in the second category before he expects others to put themselves in the first,” he would say.
As much as I hated to admit it, my father was right.
You can ask the world to respect you for who you are on the inside, Renee, or you can show on the outside what’s inside, so that they have no choice.
Despite having been terribly shaken following the incident in the metro station, the feeling slowly subsided until I was completely comfortable in my “tasteful sophistication” though I still didn’t dare renew my trips to D.C. Honestly, I liked the way I looked when I dressed in slightly fitting clothes. Because there were so many other women around me dressing provocatively, tastelessly so, it was easy to feel modest, dignified even, in my new style.
In my dorm room, I would gaze at myself in the mirror, amazed that Renee Morris was actually attractive. I loved myself and couldn’t get enough of seeing my reflection both in the room and out while passing glass windows and display cases. I knew I’d never pass the world’s litmus test for beauty or be accepted amongst the stereotypical “norm”—I could barely find clothes that properly fit my Black figure—but I fell in love with myself nonetheless, even if one trip to the clothes store sent the clear message that my dimensions were not even worth considering in calculating numerical body sizes.
Nevertheless, after tiresome searching and trying on clothes whenever I had several hours to dedicate to shopping, I’d eventually find something that fit. However, there were occasions that I fit shopping into my schedule, even when it wasn’t convenient.
Late March following Spring Break was one of those occasions, when Sumayyah called to invite me to a Muslim event in Baltimore. I immediately thought of the volunteer at the “Ask About Islam” table whom I’d subsequently seen deliver the poetic monologue. In the midst of my fashion and music fascination, I’d had nearly forgotten about Sumayyah, and him. But the sound of her voice and name brought back everything, and it was as if I were hearing the poem all over again. I felt the familiar desire to know more, but it was the young man I wanted to talk to and I had no idea if I’d ever get the opportunity. However, I did casually ask Sumayyah if she thought he and other performers from the open house would be there, and she said yes. She was sure that he would be presenting although she was unsure about the others. I couldn’t care less about the others, but I did express a sense of disappointment at the news in order to veil my true desires.
Although I was still far from enjoying the luxury of having money at my disposal, I decided that the thrift store would not do this time. I was going to treat myself to real shopping. I already knew the selections at Beltway Plaza and Laurel Mall were too limited to waste my time going there. Besides, public transportation would take me to only the former, and it would be the latter I’d choose if I was left with only those two choices. And if I were to secure a ride with a kind friend, I would ask for what I really wanted, a trip to Potomac Mills, a thirty-minute drive that ended in Virginia.
Anita was the only friend I knew with a car, but I wasn’t used to asking to go anywhere since I was usually invited whenever I rode with her. Of course, there were many other acquaintances with vehicles, but my relationship with them was more cordial than friendly.
When Sumayyah called again a few days before the Saturday event to confirm that I was going, I knew my dilemma was solved. She’d be happy to take me shopping. I was shy to ask, but once I did, my thoughts proved correct. She said that Thursday was best because she usually spent most of her Friday afternoons and evenings at the masjid. That worked perfectly for me, because I’d already asked Felicia to braid my hair Friday afternoon and my style would take a full eight hours to complete.
During the Thursday drive, Sumayyah told me the story of how she accepted Islam. The story was interesting, at least to pass time during the ride, but my knowledge of Islam was still rudimentary, so I couldn’t fully comprehend the significance of her journey. But I was intrigued that at the age of eleven she was already doubting Christianity. I was impressed that a person so young had the ability to discern contradictions and decide that she didn’t believe Jesus was God. My interest was sparked when she said that, in ways, it was easier for her to conclude that Jesus wasn’t God’s son than it was to conclude that Jesus wasn’t God.
When I asked her why, she said, “People and animals have children, not the Creator.”
Her answer was simple enough. I could see where she was coming from. But I didn’t think of God’s fatherhood in the human or animalistic sense. I told her that.
She shrugged, and I respected her for not arguing with me. She just continued to explain her feelings. “For me, I just couldn’t agree with using the word son to explain the miracle of Jesus’ birth. To me, even before I knew the Islamic explanation, it was as simple as God creating Jesus without a man’s parentage. It’s what He did with Adam. So why insist there had to be a father at all? It was like denying the miracle itself.”
I pondered that. I never thought to compare Jesus’ birth to Adam’s.
At the mall, the conversation shifted to my clothes and occasionally my background. She found The Church’s teachings intriguing and more than once expressed how blessed I was to have been raised like that. I couldn’t understand that position and told her that I would’ve preferred a normal church and family.
She laughed and told me that if I knew what went on in most “normal” families, I wouldn’t feel so inclined toward them. For some reason, her words made me think of what Darnell had said about William’s father. I wondered if there was any truth to it. But I quickly dismissed the thought, immediately reminded of the lesson Reggie had taught me—that curiosity is sometimes a sin.
After I found the outfit I wanted, we sat down in the food court and ate warm pretzels and soft-serve ice cream. I discovered that Sumayyah used to be Simone and she had chosen the name Sumayyah because it was relatively close to her given name. I also learned that she never changed her name legally and didn’t plan to. When I asked her why, she explained that it would hurt her parents too much and she wasn’t willing to do that, especially since her name held no bad meaning and Islam didn’t require her to change her name if that wasn’t the case.
I sensed she was close to her parents and asked why she lived at home instead of on campus.
“I’m the only Muslim in my family,” she said, “and I want my parents to eventually convert.”
I didn’t completely understand the explanation but I nodded as her explanation took vague meaning.
“I was a difficult child,” she said, stirring her ice cream reflectively. “I want them to see that being Muslim means they mean more to me, not less, even if I can’t embrace the religion they raised me to believe in.” She sighed.
“I want to move out. It’s hard praying and fasting and reading Qur’an while my family’s watching crazy movies, blasting music, and drinking alcohol when guests come.”
Her family sounded like how I’d imagined William’s must be. The mention of movies, music, and alcohol always evoked an image of dysfunction in my mind, although years later I would learn those three things were part of the “normal” American household. It was simply a matter of moderation in most Americans’ view. As long as they didn’t waste their entire day in front of the movie or television screen, as long as they weren’t alcoholics, then these activities could actually be “healthy” forms of relaxation.
“They don’t mind you being Muslim?”
She gathered her eyebrows as a grin lingered on her face. “They think it’s the worst thing that could’ve happened to them.”
She lifted a shoulder in a shrug and toyed with the melting ice cream without meeting my gaze. “Honestly, I really don’t know. I ask myself that everyday.”
Friday after classes, my hair was to be braided into a style similar to what others would call micro-braids except for two things—the amount and thickness of my hair rendered the addition of false hair excessive, and I didn’t have the patience to have my braids thinner than the already long session would allow for completion. Felicia blew dry my hair for maximum length then began the eight-hour session. As usual, I had a book ready, a few actually, and I began reading.
“I was awake that day that student stopped by the room,” she said.
I was so engrossed in my reading that it took me a moment to register that she was talking to me, and about Sumayyah. “Oh, really? I thought you were asleep.”
“Whatever you do, Renee,” she said as if she didn’t hear me, “don’t convert to her religion.”
I creased my forehead, but I couldn’t turn to look at her without disrupting the hairstyle. I had no plans to convert to Islam, but her tone offended me. I immediately thought of what Sumayyah had said about her family thinking her conversion was the worst thing in the world.
“Why does it matter?” I asked.
There was a long pause. “Just don’t. You’ll regret it.”
I didn’t know what to say to that so I resumed reading, and we didn’t discuss it any further. Felicia and I never discussed religion, and I had no idea what religion people from her country practiced. Before that moment I had no idea religion meant anything to her at all. I wanted to know what she knew about Islam and Muslims, but I decided against asking. The last time someone who wasn’t Muslim explained Islam to me I was left thinking it was a religion of Indians and Arabs who thought women had to be stuffed under the floorboards of a house if the front door accidentally flew open while they were near it.
I was slowly learning the wisdom of my mother saying to me the night I learned of Darnell’s sister and of her brief interest in the Nation of Islam, “If you want to understand someone’s life and choices, ask them. Otherwise, you don’t really want to understand.”
Next… Story 8 of 11 Posted every Friday
This series is derived from the UZ novel by the same name and does not feature the full book. To read the entire novel CLICK HERE.
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