Reader Question (is this becoming a pattern?) – being yourself when the world doesn’t want you to be

Y’all, I’m not becoming an advice columnist. I swear I’m not. Do you know how bad I would be at that job? I would be terrible at it! But here’s a question I received that I felt particularly moved to answer. The questioner, as always, has asked to remain anonymous. Because she is not a native English speaker, I’ve taken the slight liberty of editing her question.

I’m 19 years old (20 soon) and I grew up in a very, very, very conservative Muslim family. I have worn the hijab since the age of 8 years old, and honestly, I hate it. I feel imprisoned and like a hypocrite. Every single day wearing it is torture, it’s like I’m lying to myself, to God and to the entire world, only for the sake of pleasing my parents, and because I’m scared as hell of my dad might do if I take it off.

I have no self confidence, and it really hurts more and more as I age. I feel like I’m not doing anything in my life, because I’m not even myself, so how can I achieve something?

Recently, I’ve been thinking about taking it off in secret. I feel guilty for those thoughts, but it’s honestly my only escape, what else could I do? My dad is not mean, nor is my mom, and it makes me feel even more bad. If they were bad parents, I would probably have done it without hesitating, but I love them, and those feelings also make it hard.

I really don’t know what to do, and I’ve never felt so lost in my entire life.

Oh, sister.

It’s hard enough to rebel against people we hate, but it’s harder still to rebel against people we love. I’m sure your parents really are wonderful people – most parents are! And I think that’s why you will probably need to have a conversation about this with them eventually.

I used to take off my hijab in secret. I would wear it out of the house, take the bus to university, then take it off the moment I got on campus. I’d fold it neatly, stow it away in my satchel, and not take it out again until it was time to go home. I felt terrible about it, not because I felt like I was lying to Allah (who could see what was in my heart anyway), but because I knew I was living a lie.

My situation was a little different from yours. My mother and I get along just fine, but my father is a very conservative Muslim who is fond of strict punishments for small infractions. I did try talking to him about not wearing the hijab, and he told me that I had no choice because I’d “decided” to start wearing it at age 12 and couldn’t back out now. (I didn’t actually decide – he made that decision for me. Had I had a say, I probably would have refused to begin with. I wear the hijab to pray, but I don’t feel the need to wear it outside.) So I had to lie to him instead, even though I didn’t want to, even though I would much rather have just been honest.

My father and I don’t talk any more, and this is one of the reasons why.

Have you tried talking to your parents about these feelings? You say they’re very conservative, but also that they’re kind people. Maybe they’ll hear you out and maybe they won’t, but isn’t it at least worth trying? If they refuse to listen, then you know you’re not rebelling against people who want you to live your own life – you’re rebelling against people who want to control you, no matter how good their intentions. I think that’s an important distinction. If your parents aren’t violent or abusive, you should at least give them the chance to do the right thing here.

Wearing the hijab is such an intensely personal decision. Nobody but you can make it. If you don’t feel like it’s right for you, you shouldn’t wear it, and nobody should force you to wear it. By the same token, if you wanted to wear it and your parents didn’t want you to for some reason, I would tell you the same thing. Your body is your own, and it is up to you what you choose to hide from society and what you choose to show. Allah did not give control of your body to anybody but you, nor did Allah give anyone else the right to take that control away from you.

Here’s what I think your game plan should be:

  1. If you think you can do so safely, find a good time – when you and your parents are both in a good mood – and sit down and have a conversation about your feelings. Tell them what you told me – that you feel like a hypocrite, that you don’t want to lie to Allah or to anyone else, and that while you’re still a devout Muslim, that wearing the hijab just isn’t the right choice for you.
  2. Let your parents respond. If they’re good people – and you say they are – they should at least be willing to hear you out and have a reasonable conversation.
  3. If they agree with you, great! You can stop wearing the hijab freely and feel better because you’re being honest with yourself.

Of course, there’s a chance – a pretty good one – that even if they understand your reasoning, they won’t agree with it and will want you to keep wearing the hijab. In that case, there are a few things you can do:

  1. Keep wearing it and feel miserable
  2. Take it off in secret (but in the knowledge that you tried your best to work out an accommodation with your parents and they refused)
  3. Take it off in public (knowing that this will probably cause conflict with your parents)

This isn’t an easy decision to make. You’re 19 years old, so I assume you’re either in university or working, if your parents allow you to do either. You’re a young adult and should be allowed to choose how you live your own life. On the other hand, living at home means making certain compromises. Only you can decide what you’re willing to sacrifice and what you’ll refuse to give up.

It might turn out that living at home just isn’t a feasible option if you want to decide how you live your own life. I was your age when my dad kicked me out. He and I simply can’t live together. I’m happier when he’s not around. It might be that your relationship with your parents would be better if you didn’t live with them and had a little independence.

It also might be that you can’t afford to move out, so you have to put up with a few concessions, like wearing the hijab. It all depends. How much is this issue worth to you? You’ve said you feel like you’re living a lie and you can’t achieve anything because you can’t be your authentic self. It sounds like something’s got to give. You just have to decide what it will be, and what kind of price you’re willing to pay.

Talk to your parents if you think it’s safe to do so. See how they react. Make your choices from there. Remember that safety always comes first. And no matter what, don’t forget that Allah gave your body and your life to you only, and that you are the only one with the right to decide how you live it.

Allah bless you and guide you, wherever your path may lead.

[TW: child abuse] Cry of the Tiger Cub

or: I Grew Up with a Tiger Parent and All I Got was This Lousy Psychological Trauma

Have you read Amy Chua’s bestselling book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother? It’s a must-read if you’re a parent or thinking of having kids, mostly because it quite handily lays out some of the best ways of emotionally and psychologically abusing your child and ensuring they grow up bitter, resentful and crippled by neuroses and insecurity.

I had a Tiger Parent. I don’t think he called himself that (though he’d probably consider the moniker flattering), but all his moves were from the Tiger Parent playbook. Like Ms Chua, my Tiger Parent (let’s call him my abuser from now on, just to save me typing that ridiculous phrase over and over) probably thought he was doing me a favour, what with the unattainable standards he held over my head from the age of four, the constant comparisons to “model” children who were much better than me and for whom he would gladly trade me, and the rigorous schedule of all work and no play to which he held me.

Oh, yes. He was a tiger, all right. And I, his child, was a scratching post for his claws.

In tenth grade, when my academic advisor was helping me plan my senior curriculum, she asked me what I wanted to do after I graduated. I answered that I wanted to study medicine. (I wanted to be a writer, but my father had made it very clear that firstly, writing was a rubbish profession for lower-class people, and secondly, if I didn’t study medicine, I would find myself out of a home and without a family in short order.) My teacher, who was not stupid and was also rather fond of me, asked me what I really wanted to do after I graduated. Without so much as a second’s hesitation, I responded, “I want to make my father happy.”

See, growing up, my life was about making my father happy. As a child, I was punished for reading “rubbish” – defined as any book that wasn’t religious, educational or both – and was not allowed to have white friends because their (lax, un-tigerish) parents let them listen to pop music and watch TV and they would therefore surely be a bad influence on me. I was allowed one special treat a week – as a family, we watched National Geographic documentaries together on Saturday nights. When I consistently brought home Cs in handwriting in primary school because as a left-hander, writing lessons didn’t cater to my physical needs, my father bought copies of the handwriting books we used at school, photocopied them (so I wouldn’t sully the originals with my hen-scratch) and made me practise at home for hours, because even a C in handwriting was one C too many.

When I was old enough to begin taking instrumental lessons at school, I wanted to play the saxophone. My father wanted me to play the violin. I played the violin. When I made captain of my school’s trivia team, my father made me study quiz books for hours every day when I got home from school. When I started to cry because I was exhausted, he yelled at me. I kept studying. When I complained, he told me that I was ungrateful, that his father had been really strict, that I didn’t realise how easy I had it. His father used to tie him to a chair in order to make sure he did his maths homework. His father once hit him so hard he had to go to the doctor and lie about how he came about his injuries. By comparison, my dad was lenient and I was just weak.

I remember something he used to say to me after yelling at me, when his rage had subsided and he was holding me in his arms as though I were just a lost lamb he was trying to save from herself. “A father’s anger is never really anger, baita-jee,” he would say, stroking my hair as I sobbed. “When a father gets angry, it’s because he loves you.”

(I sometimes wonder if his father told him the same thing. Animals tend to learn by emulating their parents. I doubt tigers are much different.)

When I received a Distinction in a competition, my father would remind me that at my age, he was achieving High Distinctions in everything. An “A” in Maths or Chemistry or Physics was cause for consternation, not celebration. (He didn’t care about my straight A-pluses in English, because I wasn’t going to be a writer. He especially didn’t care for the four years in a row that I came first in my Music class, because only incredibly low-class people would ever perform music in public.) As the eldest child, I was both first in his attentions and first to feel his wrath if I proved undeserving of them. I was simultaneously held up as an example for my younger siblings (which definitely didn’t lead to them resenting me at all, oh no) and trundled out as a public whipping-girl to keep them in line. My successes were always slightly under par and not worth celebrating. My failures were proof that I was defective. Despite the fact that most of my teachers considered me a very bright and highly capable child – far more so than average, in fact – as years went on and my confidence was slowly worn to tatters, the latter became far more common than the former.

There are many things I love about Asian culture, particularly the South Asian culture in which I was raised. I love the bonds of family and community that we are encouraged to form, and the support and strength we can draw from them. I love our hospitality culture, and I still laugh fondly when my mother (who is most certainly not a parent of the big cat variety, but rather of the fallible-but-all-together-decent human one) won’t let my friends leave without at least staying for one drink. I have fond memories of dinner parties with family friends, of making up games with my siblings because we were encouraged to be each others’ best friends. I remember watching Bollywood movies with my family and sleeping all day on the holidays so that I could stay up late at night to watch Pakistan play in the Cricket World Cup. I still call my mother’s friends “aunty” and “uncle” out of respect.

But I do not love tiger parenting – not the kind Amy Chua espouses in her how-to on emotionally scarring children for life, and certainly not the kind that my emotionally distant, affection-withholding father practiced over the twenty years that I lived at home. It is neither admirable nor worth emulating to hold one’s children to impossible standards and then to make them suffer emotionally and psychologically (or even physically) when they fail to reach the bar. There is nothing brave or bold about forcing one’s sons or daughters into careers they hate, in belittling them for having dreams and ambitions of their own or in making them believe that pleasing their parents is more important than self-fulfilment. “Tiger parenting” is a nice, catchy way of saying “child abuse”, because that’s exactly what it is.

(“Why do you want to please your father so much?” my academic advisor asked me as we pored over the senior curriculum. “Don’t you want to do things that will make you happy?”

“Making my father happy will make me happy,” I replied in a monotone, blinking back tears. I knew it wasn’t true and my academic advisor knew that I knew it wasn’t true, but she also knew that my father wouldn’t sign any form that went home without his choice of subjects marked on it. She sighed and circled his choices. A dozen careers I wanted but could never have flashed before my eyes. I gained a few more scratches to go with the others.)

Hear the cry of the tiger cub: don’t buy into the toxic idea that the abuse promoted by the likes of Ms Chua is ideal parenting, or even good parenting, or even adequate parenting. Don’t buy into the idea that to be an Asian parent means one must be a tiger parent. (My mother, also of Asian descent, manages what I call “human parenting” just fine.) Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother has made Amy Chua a lot of money and gained her a lot of publicity and helped her paint herself as a model minority for white conservatives who like to moan about how undisciplined their unruly brats are. It has also helped validate the abusive behaviour of people like my father, who already didn’t need much of an excuse.

I stood up to my dad and left medical school in 2011. I still carry the scars of the scratches his claws left and I probably always will. I have my own claws, now – a defence mechanism developed so that I might keep other people seeking to gouge me to pieces at bay. Time heals most wounds, but others, it can only ease slightly. I only hope I’ve gained enough insight that I’ll never use them on my own children.

I do not know if Amy Chua’s children are similarly scratched and scarred. I hope against hope that they are not.

I hope against hope that they know – or come to know – that in reality, tigers, like most parents, are quite gentle with their cubs.

Scenes from the life of a Muslim feminist

“Aaminah, tell me you’re not wearing that out,” my mother says, consternation writ large on her face.

I am going to a party with friends, or to a late night coffee outing with the girls, or to an indie film night at the local community theatre, or just to the library to read. We have had this conversation so many times, my mother and I – she with her hair covered, in her long-sleeved shirts that are never too fitted and her trousers that are never too skinny; me with my lips painted bright red, towering over my mother in my high-heeled boots. We will have this conversation many times more.

“What’s wrong with it?” I ask, deliberately feigning ignorance. “Don’t I look nice?”

I know what she means. She knows I know what she means. She sighs. “Of course you look nice,” she says. “But do your skirts have to be, you know…” she gestures at the hem of my skirt, far above mid-thigh – exactly where I like it.

“I love this skirt,” I say. I said it the last time I wore it, and the time before that. “What’s wrong with this skirt?”

“It’s not a skirt, it’s a belt,” my mother quips, but by this point, both of us are smiling a little. She knows I won’t change and I know she won’t stop trying to convince me to change. It’s all right. This is a part of our relationship – me with my miniskirts and heels and shirts that make my mother blush, my mother with her scarves and sensible clothing that is always elegant without showing very much of anything.

We do not have to be alike in order to love each other. We have always been different, my mother and I. She is warm, genuine, loving and has a smile and a kind word for everyone. I am cold and aloof and like to pretend that I don’t care about people nearly as much as I secretly do. Perhaps the reason we get along so well is that we balance each other out.

My mother’s sleeve has rolled up slightly, caught in her wristwatch. I feign shock and indignation. “You’re one to talk, Mummy!” I gasp, pointing at her exposed wrist. I hiss, “there are men about, Mummy! Cover yourself! Have a little shame, for heaven’s sakes!”

She laughs, and then I laugh, and then we hug each other tightly. I have to bend a little, as I am already taller than my mother on flat feet, let alone in the heels I insist on wearing so often. I rest my head against her shoulder and smile. I love my mother so very much, and her repeated scolding about my clothing and resigned sighs about my hem length are just reminders that she loves me too. I am her first baby – first to grow up, first to leave the nest. I’ll be married soon, almost ready to start a family of my own, but I know I’ll still be her first baby when I have grandchildren of my own and am clicking my tongue disapprovingly at the way they dress.

“Have fun,” my mother says, gently slipping out of my arms and stepping back. She cannot resist tugging down the hem of my skirt a little. I glare at her and she laughs again. It’s the warmest, happiest sound I have ever heard in my life. “Say hello to your friends for me.”

“Are you sure you don’t want to come?” I ask her this every time I go anywhere. My friends all adore my mother. Everyone adores my mother. She’s the kind of person it’s impossible not to love at first sight. “You know the others won’t mind.” I lower my voice conspiratorially. “I’m pretty sure they like you more than they like me anyway, Mummy,” I confide in her. (This, too, I have said many, many times. We have had this conversation so many times before.)

She rolls her eyes at me. “Stop sucking up,” she says, but she cannot help but smile as she says it. “Go! I’m going to go and pray and then go to bed.”

I hug her one last time. We were separated for so long after my parents’ divorce that I sometimes feel like I’m making up for every hug we missed while we were apart. “I love you, Mummy,” I say, surreptitiously hiking my skirt back up. (She notices. She’s my mother. Of course she notices.)

“I love you too, my love,” she says, and I know she really means it. I know she will always mean it, no matter how often we quibble about my clothes or my feminism or that one time I got a little tipsy at a party. She has meant it since the day I was born. She meant it when I was an awkward, aloof teenager who didn’t know how to say it back. She meant it during the years after she divorced my father – meant it every time she said it to me and I refused to say it back because I was hurting too much. (She knows I wanted to say it but couldn’t. She understands. She’s my mother. Of course she understands.) She means it now.

We are not very much alike, my mother and I – she with her resigned sighs when I show up to visit her at work with fishnets under my plaid Hot Topic skirts; me with my rolled eyes every time she adjusts the necklines of my t-shirts because she judges them indecent. But this does not stop us from loving each other very much. It does not stop me from respecting her faith, or her from respecting mine. We know that deep down, we believe in the same Creator, even if we express that belief to the world in different ways. We know that we do not have to agree on everything in order to agree on that.

“Good night, Mummy,” I say as my phone buzzes to let me know my ride has arrived.

“Don’t bend over in that skirt,” she replies, and I want to roll my eyes at her but I end up smiling instead, because it’s such a very Mummy thing for her to say.

I have a fantastic night. My friends tell me they love my skirt. I think of my mother and smile.

Dedicated to my Mummy, who taught me almost everything I know both about what it is to be a Muslim and about what it is to be a feminist.

The most beautiful woman in the world

My mother started going grey when she was very young. By the time I was no more than five years old, there were already strands of silver in her black curls. To my young eyes, they shone. So too did my mother’s smile, full of warmth and love and kindness, the most beautiful smile I have ever seen.

She has always believed in me, even when I have found it impossible to believe in myself. Every certificate and ribbon I brought home as a child was celebrated as though it was the highest honour attainable. She was in the audience during every debate and every speech night, clapping encouragingly when my name was called. She listened to me sing and play the piano haltingly for her as though she was being treated to a world class performance. She still boasts about me, her eldest child, to her friends, treasuring my accomplishments far more than her own hard-won achievements. She is my stalwart supporter and loyal friend, always ready with words of encouragement and praise when I can find none within myself.

People have called her voice musical, but it is nothing compared to her laugh, which rings with joy and good cheer and warms my heart whenever I hear it. I love few things more than making my mother laugh. It never stops feeling like a noble thing to do. For a woman who has weathered many storms and struggles, she is still so quick to smile and make merry, and to encourage high spirits in others. I have never seen my mother stand back or remain silent in the face of a friend’s dismay. She is always the first to offer a helping hand and a shoulder to cry on. She gives of herself freely and unreservedly, putting the world before herself and never begrudging anyone.

My mother is almost fifty years old (may she forgive me for revealing this) but retains the soul of the young, lively woman she was when I was a child. She is still vivacious, light-hearted, much more fond of jokes and frivolity than she ever has been of serious things. And yet, in my times of greatest need, she has been my rock, my safe port in a storm. I am almost twenty-four years old and she has never stopped caring for me with the tenderness and affection she showed when I was newly born. She has weathered my temper tantrums and outbursts, held me as I cried, stayed by my bedside when I was sick, dropped everything to tend to me when I’ve been hurt. She has never wavered, never decided that I’m old enough not to need her care any more. I still call her almost every day; she still visits when I’m ill and checks up on me when my depression drags me down.

My mother is the most beautiful woman in the world. Perhaps you cannot see it, but if so, you are merely not looking close enough. Look at the tiny lines and creases on her face, relics of smiles and laughter. Look at the warmth and love in her eyes. Look at her heart, which has room enough for the world and then some to spare. I have always known it and will always know it; I will never be convinced otherwise. I have seen many beautiful women and will see many more, but none of them will ever equal my mother in grace or kindness or love or generosity. She is truly the most beautiful woman who has ever lived. I love her, and I am so blessed to have her.