I'M NINE YEARS OLD, swung back on the sofa, watching the wooden chair in my father's hands come to hit me for the third time.
It's not his fault, he was provoked. I provoked him. Up to the age of 14 I was a miscreant; I shouldn't have been born really. They wanted a boy. I couldn't help it.
Back to the chair in his hands. I willed that it would strike me on the head so I could either taste death and go where all children go - India - or that he would turn around and strike the actual source of provocation: the man he called his brother.
Uncle T was a rude, callous man. Twice divorced and childless, he easily mocked women, parenting and children's innocence. He would pattern his conversations with vile remarks; girls were a bane, marriage was to control and dominate, women were only good for one thing, and that thing they were not very good at. Aged 9, I used to think he meant their cooking.
Back to the chair in his hands. He shouted at me through grey eyes to stop crying. I weeped silently, frowning, arms in the air as a shield, biting my bottom lip until it bled to prevent any sound leaving. I still do that. Bite my lip when my father's in the room and make mental istighfaar (repentance to God) so I don't react to anything he says. Right or wrong, I did not want to be on the receiving end of his hands-on dialogue.
Uncle said I swore at him the day we went on the buses; he slipped it into his sentences so we all had to look up to hear it. I never swore at him. I only knew three curse words then, one of which was in Bengali. I never swore at him. But that flipped an "on" button in my father's head and he stood up, threw his seat back, picked up the nearest chair in one deft movement and slashed me on my side so even though I was sitting, I fell back. It didn't hurt as badly as it sounds. What hurt was that he hit me. I wanted to hit him back.
My mother dove forward to make him drop the chair but he pushed her too. Rage. It destroys a person. I was always afraid of rage. Keep quiet, work in the cracks, stop wanting, just don't get anyone angry because they will make everything stop. My mother did that too. "She's just like you", he said to her, half spitting. Uncle didn't move a inch. The teacup and saucer were still in his hands. I hated Iraqi tea.
When I turned halfway between 11 and being a grown up, my father began his talks. These were our talks; long, philosophical, self-questioning. He took me to his tribal world from two hundred years ago where red haired women pierced all of their ears, men married four wives in one day and children slept in fields alone to keep the poorer people from stealing their crops. He always evolved and brought me back to Qur'an, those few select ayaat (verses) he had memorised. Women, chastity, children, respect, stones, fire. I went to school with a fire that I thought was a part of me. I came home and realised that's where I was heading. He didn't hate women, not all of them. Khadejah رضي الله عنها (may Allah be pleased with her) he loved. Fatimah (ra) he loved. Mariyam (ra) he occassionally mentioned and 'Asiyaa (ra) was his favourite. She died religiously despite being married to a tyrant. "My mother never questioned my father," he said with dignified pride. "My father would leave for days, travel, work, earn - we were poor - but my mother never rebuked him, not once. This is a good wife."
Later, when I turned 16 I saw the camouflaged love my father had for my mother. He loved her like this when we were all younger. His was the kind of Kind that divine revelations asked for. His smiles and compliments were sincere, he meant them. But was it enough. He never lied. When he was content, you could come home with a criminal conviction - I did - and he would compassionately solve your problem. When he was mad though, you wished you were a different gender. My mother loved him back, more, because she was a woman, and because she was a child of the same bitterness. Their marriage began as a relationship, two individuals weaving something pretty together, and later they burned it and threw the ashes over each other. They blamed each other for not putting the fire out. They didn't wash that away, or weave something differently, they just sat in soot. They would often taste it, sometimes making the other taste it. Sometimes they threw it on me.
I thought maybe it is my mother's fault my father isn't happy. Maybe she does do things that are wrong so Allah is showing His anger through my father. But I never saw her do anything wrong, so I don't know. One day she came home after dark and he asked her why she was at her sister's house for so long. She said she was catching up with family news, smiling and blowing out a small laugh to herself. I liked it when she laughed. I don't know if he was jealous of her laugh or annoyed at her late arrival but he muttered,
"When you spend time with bad influence, you turn bad and influence others". He meant me.
I was in the room alphabetising coursework, listening, biting my lip.
Her face changed so you could see her wrinkles and she replied in hurt,
"I hadn't seen her in so many months, it was only a couple of hours. She's my sister".
"Sisters are distrustful," he said, "Like the wind they will change on you and create disaster".
He had an allergic reaction to arrogance, the colour yellow, fish, and her family. When I turned 19 I told myself I could only hate him and tried to give him overdoses of his allergies, but he only became colourblind and lost his sense of taste.
Eventually they had physical fights. Out of giving up, my mother gained courage and spoke back which meant he threw more things and curses at her. They hit her and broke me. I memorised every rumbling tone, every shattering object, every tear. When she cried, I cried. When he cried, we all cried. Painful tears taste like salt mixed with acid, it's so odd. I would make du`a (supplication) again, every time, willing for God to bring them peace. I watched door frames collect splinters and blisters which never smoothened out. We lost a lot of glassware in those years.
He would give long talks to her too, Islamic monologues which she couldn't dispute. He was always right in Islam no matter how wrong he was. He took everyone back to his world where women were submissive to their husbands and holier because of it. A place of warped equality where men were prophets and women were theirs. It took me two decades to realise that this submission was not the submission God guided. You didn't fall on the floor and give in, you touched the floor with your forehead and communicated. My father pushed you to the floor and then questioned why you dare to look up. He forced the wrong Islam into us which only confused us and challenged us.
Another time he shouted at her in front of all of us for wearing the silver high heels to a wedding. "Prostitutes dress this way." She could have told him that he bought them for her when we all went to Iraq that year it flooded. But she kept quiet for the reward. She wore black and a black hijab even though some of her hair was showing. In the photos my father's face was turned to the right.
At 28 we all stopped trying. Over 30 years of accumulated ash meant both of my parents were stuck. My father had built himself a fort of regret which nobody could enter nor leave. My mother didn't know how to look outside of that fort. I tried to talk to him when I was 23, I really tried my best. I didn't stutter, raise my voice or speak too European, I didn't mention anyone by name or include my mother's family. "Prioritise," I said repeatedly, "remember what the Prophet ﷺ said, your wife has a right over you, your family has a right over you. We respect you, we don't disobey you." I felt like I was the second mother, carrying my mother's flag of, "The whole world can rot, we will not." He didn't utter a single sound. I was used to hearing something painful, but nothing.
I gave up. Then I cried like I used to when I was 12. I didn't bawl out or lock myself in a room. I gripped a bannister, bit my lip and cried hard silently and my shoulders shook. I cried so hard the capillaries under my eyes burst so in the morning my cheeks were freckled with red.
My mother had her rage when we were alone together. Her rage I could handle because it reflected mine.
"I am the disobedient wife because he defines me that way. I cannot change him. He only knows this much," she measured out a circle with her tired hands, "and everything outside of this space is foreign to him, it's haram (forbidden in Islam) to him." I wanted to lean out and hug her but I didn't and I regret that.
I could only be practical like my father and tell her what I knew about Muslim men. "You can't ever criticise him ma because it'll break his ego, you cannot ever bring up something he did in the past even though we know it was worth finding some justice, but we ask Allah to forgive him. He will hold it all against you. You are going to have to compromise because that's what every woman has to do. I don't know why he's got it in for you - and now I'm your daughter so now, obviously, I'm following your God forsaken 'evil' path of tribulation - but I can only do much as your daughter. He's your husband, you know him, if you want him to change, you change. If that means an ultimatum, fine, if that means you leaving, fine, and I'm coming with you. If that means the 'D' word, fine. Do it now ma, before my next birthday, please."
I shouted this to her, I waved my arms and slapped my forehead. The trees that surrounded us stood still and I became afraid they imprinted my raging words and would tell my father. I thought of something wiser.
"You need to do something drastic. He isn't going to change, no. Masha'Allah (whatever Allah decrees to be). But he's a strange man with whatever upbringing has made him that way, he doesn't understand women and I doubt he ever will. I don't understand this test Allah's given us but we're not passing it because we're still in it. Whatever he does, whatever, that's that, but I'm here trying to move forward and you're hoping for things so do something."
I never cried in front of my mother. And that was the only time I raised my voice at her as an outsider. I ended with, "You both need counselling and I wish I could help you, but that's not my job. Subhan'Allah (glory be to Allah Who is free from imperfections)."
She said things too. She listed the competitive things he had done and how she tried to mend them. I didn't want to hear about yesterday. Yesterday hurt. But I understood what she wasn't saying. Cold words and frowns from a man you love are worse than broken doors. You just wanted him to come to you. To you. Love was a competition: the bond was who could win. I fell in love twice but never won. But the difference between my mother and I was that I had fallen in love with God so I could heal better, faster.
In 2009 my father sighed. It was a long breath which meant he was about to give a life lesson. "Binti Mareera, listen to me." I turned completely to face him, "Ji, baba."
"You musn't trust anyone," was how he began. Oh, it was one of those speeches. I switched my brain onto 'silent' mode. "People are clever, very sly and clever. They say one thing and mean another."
I wanted to jut in here about his double edged words but told myself it would only create trouble.
"Your mother," - what about my mother? What? Now what? "Your mother is from a noble family."
This sounds like a good thing. It wasn't. This meant class divide.
He raised his eyebrows in sarcasm, "Your mother is an 'ameera' (princess) and stubborn, she will not listen to others. A woman is supposed to obey her husband."
I didn't know in what she had disobeyed him but I knew then the ruling for a disobedient wife from the Qur'an in surah an-Nisa, chapter 4 on women, verse 34. It was an age old mistranslation. God says when your wife doesn't obey you in your rights from her, advise her, then give her the silent treatment, and as the last resort show your anger by tapping her on her hand once, with up to a hundred thin stalks tied together. This was a shari` (Islamic legal system) ruling from Prophet Ayoub's (as) time. But, every Qur'an copy we had told men to beat their wives senseless. I remember the crippled woman from our home town who was beaten by a wooden board so many times, she fell unconscious. It was probably head trauma; they couldn't get her to an ambulance quick enough so she died at home in front of her babies. Her husband told the doctors she committed suicide but a rumour said he hit her for adulterous suspicions.
"I do not trust your mother - and I want you to know, so that you do not make the same mistake. My mother told me not to marry her. My mother told me that there will be problems, she was a wise woman. She knew her family was not good. Look", and then he gave me the evidence.
"Your grandfather, your mother's father, may Allah grant his soul Heaven, was a cunning man. He cheated people, stole their land and bribed officers." I wanted to explain several things; listing his faults counted as backbiting, everyone stole land, it was the hereditary culture, you had to have power, and to survive you had to bribe police officials. In a place where the government and authority was corrupt, you couldn't live by some 'holier than thou' rubbish. But, he didn't hear this. So, he went on.
"And your mother's family is proud. You know how bad pride is? Shaytaan (the Devil) was ruined, ruined because of one atom of pride he had and he committed such a huge, terrible crime against God.
I am ruined because of your mother and she doesn't apologise or listen. She is always angry and I ask you, how can a person live with another person who is angry, all the time?"
I wanted to show him a recording of the musical chair incident. I wish DVD players had been invented then.
"Marriage is hard. You have to compromise, it's very hard."
I had been married for two years and I knew he forgot this often, it was inexplicable how he would side-sweep decades of my life. He was telling me something I had already overcome.
"In marriage you will be tested in ways you didn't think you would and people will test you in bad, difficult ways. They make your life a misery..." He was talking about that time his friends didn't back his work ideas. "How could they? People you think are your friends. Look, real friends, true friends, they rise when you walk into a room, they give you their seat like the Prophet ﷺ used to give his family. The Prophet Muhammad ﷺ would quickly get up and give his daughter his seat and she would do the same." He was saying this to me, I could tell, 'why don't you ever stand up when I walk into a room like the good daughter hazrat Fatemah?' I felt a little bruised. It was a familiar place.
My mother was in the other room, writing something. They were rarely in the same room. I still wondered how they slept.
"Your mother never supported me, she never helped me..." Yes, she did. When his friends backed away, my mother consoled him, I was there.
"Your mother talks to men, for what? She talks to that man and this man, this is not good, she will be punished for that. A woman does not talk to men without a business reason. But I have told her so many times to not go to work appointments or answer the door, she is a stubborn woman.
In Islam, in our religion, women do not do these things. Women stay indoors. Did Fatemah (ra) ever leave her house?" My chest began to flood and my head hurt. All these statements and with such hate; I began to resent the Mothers of the Believers. It's o.k, it's o.k. My eyes turned red, ready to weep.
"You are wise, tell me, are women supposed to be like this?" A rhetoric. No, don't answer.
"My mother warned me against women like her, she knew that our lives would be filled with difficulty".
My life was better, al-hamdulillah, it was much better. He refused to see that. I didn't visit home often with my husband because my father looked at him like a stranger; my husband also adapted and was quieter. He was the outsider that enveloped me in a co-operative Islam. I never showed that Islam to my father either because he was against excessive happiness.
He sighed again. "This is not the life I expected," I cried at his sadness. "I cannot change your mother, she is wanting other things, different things, she thinks she is better than me." The worst thing for a child is to hear your father criticise your mother. Tears overflowed and I used the end of my hijab to dab them without attention, as though my eyes were tired. I didn't look up.
"I cannot do this and I ask Allah to save me". I cried again, quietly. Every word was a nick at my veins. I knew I could never repeat this to my mother, that made me cry more. I hated being a woman then. Why the hell do women always cry? Make him be quiet. Stop, stop crying. He'll see you and think you're weak.
"I make du`a Allah has mercy on me and saves me from jahiliyah (an ignorant state). Save our families from the Hellfire. Ya Al-Qudoos (the Pure), Ar-Raheem (the Merciful), save us from jinni people, from problems, from the evil of money and power, from the whispering of Shaytaan..." Ameen, ameen, ameen, ameen.
I sniffed twice, rubbed my nose and breathed. I wanted to go Home. Let this be my last prayer, then Home.
"Allah gives victory to men who are patient and who tolerate wicked women. Didn't Allah gave victory to Prophet Yusuf (as)? Prophet Yusuf (as) told that wicked woman, 'I know Allah is on my side, I seek refuge in Him' - it was that women who tried to do evil with him, and I say the same; Allah knows who the wicked and lost souls really are." I was internally conflicted; he's right, right? Allah knows everything. Be patient I told myself, he's just not getting it. I tilted over because of an ache in my chest I hadn't felt in years. I heard white noise as he carried on and repeated the line in my mind,
'Innamaa hadhihi hayaatu mataa’
– Verily this life is full of struggles.
I knew I would die, my mother would die, he and my family would die. This is just a phase, an obstacle to overcome, take it and learn from it. But I still cried in bittersweet hope and confusion. Hope. What a lie.
"Ya Allah," he looked up and called to Whomever was Protecting. "Ya Allah, save me from the fitna (tribulation) of women."
I wept. He meant me too. Such disgust. At me. His daughter. I wept. I cried. I bled. I needed cold air, I couldn't breathe. Dry your eyes, he can't see them.
I got up, desperate to go, with an aching heart and a longing heart, and he called me back once more. He called me back to finalise the sacred scroll with a wax seal.
"I regret marrying your mother".
"I know", I said mildly. "I know." And left.
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