Reader question: navigating Islam in the 21st century

I promise this isn’t turning into an advice column (wouldn’t I be the worst advice columnist ever?). When I got this question from a reader, however, I figured I ought to make the response public. I get questions like this a lot and I don’t have the time or energy to give them all the lengthy, in-depth, personal responses they deserve. I hope this will help some of the people who write to me asking for advice on navigating their lives as Muslims whilst staying true to themselves.

Hi! 

I came across your blog when I was searching about Islam, feminism, and other random things. I was surprised to read something so open and honest regarding topics that are generally taboo in the Muslim community. 
I’m a teenager living in a family that strictly follows Islam (Islam mixed in with culture and my parents’ upbringings) in a community that does the same. While I believe in Allah and his prophet, I’m not very religious and I believe many practices/thoughts/beliefs are outdated. 
Reading your article on Islam, it seems you have your mother’s support. despite practicing your religion a different way. What should you do when you don’t have parental support? Every time I try to leave the house in a loose t-shirt, my mom reminds me to put a scarf around my neck or on my head.  
Did you receive any backlash from your extended family or community for going against the religious and cultural rules they live to follow?
I dream of the day when I can go to college and live on my own, without having to explain myself or my actions. 
Thank you for reading. 🙂
 
Hi, reader (I’m gonna call you X because you asked to stay anonymous)! I’m sorry it took me so long to get back to you. Life, you know? Ain’t no rest for the wicked.
 
It’s always hard to know where to start with questions like this. Your question had several parts: how did I get my mother’s support? what would I have done if I hadn’t been able to secure it? what was the community response to my choices? There’s a lot in here, so I’ll try to break it down.
 
Firstly, you should know that Islam is not incompatible with feminism. I encourage you to look into organisations like Muslims for Progressive Values, which you might find more in line with your own feelings on Islam, as well as following some Muslim feminists on Twitter and other social media. A few of my favourites are @Rrrrnessa, @UncolonisedMind, @Sahraa_Ali, @atypewritersing and @carambalache (holla!). They all have amazing, intersectional perspectives on Islam, feminism, identity and community. There are plenty of amazing and insightful people like them who will make you feel a lot less alone and help you find a strong basis for reinterpreting Islam in your own life. Look for Muslims who incorporate queer, trans and black perspectives into their feminism. All of the great people I mentioned do all of that and more, but there are others who are also fantastic!
 
Now that that’s out of the way, onto the meat of your question.
 
I am pretty religious in my way, but I understand that some people aren’t, yourself included, and that’s fine. You asked me what I would’ve done if I didn’t have my mother’s support for my own lifestyle and practices. That’s actually easy for me to answer, because it was my experience with my dad. And let me tell you, it was tough. It wore on me. I felt like my spirit was being crushed every day that I lived under his roof. I’ve written about some of his abusive behaviours elsewhere so I won’t go into details here, but it is extremely difficult to attempt life as your authentic self when a person who controls everything from where you go to when you eat is calling the shots.
 
All I can tell you on that score is to be patient and to find places where you can be yourself. For me, my escape from my father’s tyranny was college. I used to stay long hours just so I wouldn’t be at home. I’d bring my computer to college with me, hole myself up in a computer lab and not come home until midnight. My father didn’t like it, and he often punished me in cruel and creative ways, but it was worth it for those moments of escape and solitude. I made friends, got a taste of life outside and was able to recharge a little between doses of “discipline”. I’m reasonably confident that I wouldn’t have survived twenty years at home without those fleeting escapes.
 
You aren’t in college yet, so I assume you’re in high school. Are there clubs you can join? Can you start a study group? Tell your parents you want to do your homework at the library because it’ll help you focus? If your parents are like mine were, appealing to academics is a good way of getting yourself that tiny slice of freedom. Even a couple of hours a week away from them will help. You’ll get to meet people who won’t judge you for being yourself, which is hugely important. If you can, find a place where you can have short social encounters without members of your community watching and judging. (For me, this was a little cafe across the road from my campus, where I shared many a plate of chips and gravy with friends between classes. Every little bit helps, it really does.) Carve out a little space in the world for yourself and the people you love and trust. It really does make all the difference.
 
(Oh, and see if you can’t take a change of clothes with you when you leave the house. I used to wear my hijab out the door and onto the bus, then take it off the moment I got to school. Is there a place where you’d feel safe doing something like that?)
 
The other thing you asked about was backlash from my community. X, I’m sad to say that I’m still experiencing that backlash. People talk behind my back all the time: “ah, she was such a good Muslim girl! what happened to her?” You just have to ignore it and move on, I’m afraid. You can’t change people’s minds for them. Decide for yourself how much you need these people in your life, and if you can avoid them, do so. You don’t need that kind of toxicity following you around. Rumours and whispers are hard to ignore at first, but if you pay them no credence, you’ll find that they either die down or people stop relaying them to you. Of course, every now and then you’ll get someone (probably a man, let’s be real) telling you to your face that you’re a bad Muslim or that you need to cover up. If you can, look them in the eye and tell them your life is between you and Allah, then walk away. You don’t owe anyone else an explanation of your life choices.
 
This is all a bit hard when you’re still a teenager, isn’t it? I know there are many people whose misguided “advice” you’ll have to listen to out of politeness and lots of aunties and uncles who will tell you things they think they know about you. Grin and bear it. You won’t be stuck under their thumb forever, and sometimes keeping the peace is better than starting a fight you can’t win.
 
Finally, I’ll give you the advice I give every young Muslim who comes to me for help: read the Qur’an. I’m not saying that in a holier-than-thou, “you need to improve yourself” kind of way. I’m saying it because the Qur’an is truly your best weapon against ignorance and bigotry of the kind you’ll experience from your family and community. I have to recommend The Message of the Qur’an by Muhammad Asad, which you can find as a free PDF at that link or for pretty cheap on Kindle. I’ve found a lot in Asad’s translation and commentary that has come in handy when addressing the criticisms of bigots and fundamentalists. Maybe it’ll help you too.
 
I hope you found this helpful! Remember above all that you are not alone: there are thousands – tens of thousands, even more! – of Muslims the world over who are questioning the outdated cultural mores of their ancestors and reinterpreting Islam for the 21st century and beyond. I believe that Islam is truly a religion for all time, which means that we have a responsibility to constantly re-examine and question what we think we know about it so that we can be sure we’re following it in a way that brings us the most possible peace and happiness. Whether you consider yourself very religious or not, remember that you have as much of a right to Allah’s love and the comfort of community as anyone else. I very much hope that you find these things and that they bring you peace and solace.
 
May Allah bless you and make your path an easy one, sister.
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