Monday, June 25, 2012

[uncensored]: Why am I Still Single?

As salaam alaikum,

Yesterday, as I was walking with my co-residents to Pride with my rainbow-colored scarf that I never wore as a khimar at the time it was gifted to me around my neck, texting a man who is interested in me, my angle twisted on a piece of uneven pavement, and I felt myself fall to the ground.

I landed on my hands.

When you fall, people are embarrassed for you. That makes the fall more embarrassing than it otherwise would be.

But I played not embarrassed. "I'm kind of clumsy, so I'm not surprised this happened," I shrugged off. And I shut off embarrassment as much as I can, and I deny the pain of the open sore on my hand and the my ankle, which I later discover is bleeding. I'm fine, I say. I have this odd experience where I feel pain at first, then I feel numbness, then the pain is gone, I tell one of the resident's boyfriends. Maybe it's the acupuncture, I say to myself. Don't want to sound crazy in front of this new group of people. I'll wait a while longer for my eccentricity to come out, though I did allow myself to show them some samba.

I'm not sure this group can handle all that I am...nor should they. They are my colleagues, my professional colleagues. I'll save all that I am for other venues.

But I did think about why I fell. Was this a sign? Was it a sign that I'm going in the wrong direction? I don't drink alcohol, but am I around alcohol too much? I still pray, but do I not pray enough? I don't have sex, but am I flirting with the possibility too much?

Am I too much of earth, and not enough for God?

I'm so inspired this morning with all of these questions and all of these thoughts because I just watched a TED talk this morning that was assigned to us prior to the session we are to have during this block of our residency. It felt very touchy-feely at the time, but it was informative and I think important for me to reflect on.

Dr. Brene Brown discusses "The Power of Vulnerability." In brief, she talks about how those people who led the happiest lives were able to love wholeheartedly, and a big part of that was accepting and embracing vulnerability...the vulnerability of life and loving. They were also able to embrace their worthiness. They were worthy of loving, worthy of feeling connection, connection that defines us all so much.

But listen to the talk. Really. I'm not a self-help buff by any means, but it's 20 minutes, and it will help put what's coming next into context.

So I listened to this, and I was struck! That's me! Talk about strumming my pain with her fingers, singing my life with her words. This is me in a nutshell.

Necessarily, many of us who go into medicine are perfectionists. I am a diehard. To say I studied hard is an understatement. I strove to get all As at all times, and when I didn't, I beat myself up about it. I'm not that smart, because I got a 3.908 in college, and my science GPA was even lower. I knew people who got higher. I'm not that smart, because I got an 85% A in my organic chemistry class. It was on a curve, so it wasn't a real A.

I'm not that smart, because I'm not perfect, in other words. You always strive for that perfection as a perfectionist. Even if one's imperfection is good enough.

Worthiness is something I struggle with in all domains. I don't know if it's more often than not but too often, I don't feel worthy, or I at least question my worthiness. Was I worthy of being called a good medical student? Am I worthy of any type of praise? Was I worthy enough to attend Harvard, really? Am I worthy of being called a Muslim? Am I worthy before God? Am I worthy of being loved?

Because I'm not there...I'm not there.

Let's break down one of these for now. Am I worthy of being loved? I don't know. Sometimes, I feel like, absolutely. But most of the time, I feel like, the proof is in the pudding. And then I remind myself that I am loved, by family and friends...but that's not what I mean.

And all of us who wonder this know that's not what we mean. We want a partner! We want romantic love, carnal love, whatever you want to call it and whatever you want to deny. So I ask, am I worthy of being loved by a man who will marry me or am I not?

If I am worthy, then why am I still single?

Why am I still single?

"Because the right one hasn't come along yet," they all say. This satisfies me for, like, five seconds.

But what if he never comes?" I sometimes say aloud, sometimes keep to myself. But for real, though. What if he never comes? What if he doesn't exist? What if God wants me to be single for the rest of my life because that is my portion?

"God doesn't want that for us," some would say, my father, for example.

Well then, why am I suffering so much from being single? This must be a trial, and so far, I'm failing.

Failing. Failing.

There's that word that I've used so much for someone who has actually never failed. Alhamdulillah, I've never failed to fast Ramadan. Alhamdulillah, I've never failed a class or a test or anything academic like that. Alhamdulillah, I've never failed my family, let them down...

But I use that word, fail, a lot to describe myself. Failure at life. Meaning failure at love.

Am I a failure at love?

"No, you just haven't found the one yet."

The one. I don't want to believe in that shit.

It just seems like an invitation to let down, disappointment, disillusionment. It's something you can only know in retrospect.

And that still doesn't answer the question...what if I'm not going to find the one, the right, the whatever? What if no man ever wants to marry me like no man has ever (legitimately) wanted to marry me?

Online proposals from random international Muslims aside.

Dr. Brown said that we numb vulnerability, some of us with addictions to substances, food and drug. I did the food thing a little bit, but I think numbing several emotions led me, leads me, to cycle into depression at different points in my life.

I numb attraction. Before I was practicing fully, I numbed it because it was inconvenient and risky. Why allow myself to be attracted to someone if they don't like me back? Yet, it inevitably happened, but I fought it so hard.

I fight so hard.

I liked when I became more practicing an such attraction was haram, anyway. Then, I was justified in numbing, denying, and I felt like it was an act of worship on top of it to obfuscate so thoroughly. And anything else was sin. This is how God intended us to be. Fight the base way we were created in order to attain the spiritual heights to transcend this earthly world in anticipation of Heaven.

But there is no easy way to follow God.

There is no easy way because we can deny so hard in places where we deem love and attraction to be inappropriate that we don't love in the right places when it is appropriate.

Perfectionists are among us all throughout life and over time, many of them have had loud voices and have led many of us down the road to masochism, using God's name in vain.

The Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, must have been a perfectionist as well. I'm thinking of the Hadith that I love but that bites me hard at the same time. That religion should be very easy, but all we have to do is try to be as perfect as we can.

Ummmm...that is not easy. That second part. Not even very easy. Lord have mercy on me, but it's not.

Dr. Brown talks about practicing vulnerability. As my mother would say, if these people would just read the Qur'an and find Islam. It's very hard to find Islam. This world is too polluted right now by Muslims and non-Muslims corrupting Islam and obscuring the beautiful path. I pray that I'm not one of them. I'm fine with not everyone being Muslim because becoming Muslim in this country often inspires people to leave or lose sight of those principles that led them to submit to God in the first place in favor of bullshit...

But I digress.

I say all of this because practicing vulnerability is practicing Islam. Submitting to God is allowing yourself to be vulnerable to a Being that you cannot touch, who is perceivable through His creation only, who we have no proper pronouns for in our languages that are not limited by gender, who we can't help but anthropomorphize in our minds (yes, everyone, even Muslims). Submitting to a Being that we cannot sense with our five senses directly.

Trusting Him when there's no evidence (and no promise!) that you'll get what you want. Trusting that what He wants is best, even if you don't get what you want. Trusting Him that he's guiding you, although you feel like you don't know where you're going.

You know what you're supposed to do, but you don't know how to do it. This can lead you astray.

Astray. That's almost a curse word for me.

Practicing vulnerability, for me, begins spiritually, so begins with my relationship with God. Worthiness, I should seek first with God.

Because human beings, we're all guilty of this, but we'll seek these things in arms, physical arms, first. In significant others in particular sometimes...

But is my harkening so much toward God above the carnal, which calls me deeply, as is my nature, as I was created by my Creator, my attempt at perfection that cannot be achieved, due to my nature? And should I seek something unattainable? Or should I embrace my imperfections, in the name of God, and move forward?

So, why am I still single? I could say a lot of things. Part of me wants to fault myself. I'm too intense, I talk too much, I'm too ambitious, I'm too picky, I'm too...fat. Another part of me wants to fault men. They don't know a good thing when they see it, they don't value virtue (or at least its attempts), they don't value an intelligent woman, they don't value my beauty, they're emotionally lazy, they want sex and no commitment. I could do a life retrospective, and it all started when I embraced, as a practicing Muslimah, my fear of vulnerability by seeking a form of religion in which there was a straight way in life in which all good things were guaranteed, a straight way and a right way to do things so I wouldn't get hurt by a man who just desires my sex and then leaves me when/if he gets what he wants... So I didn't date, because it was haram, and so I remained single. God intends marriage to protect us from the pains of premarital intimacy with people who are not married to us under God. Just to find out that there are no guarantees, not even in marriage (and sometimes especially not in marriage), and so one of the major reasons I became more practicing is now moot, but I always have been and always will be Muslim. And a Muslimah who practices Islam who is not super conservative is hard to find a match for, when the Muslim men like her are not seeking Muslim women.

But the answer is, I don't know.

I don't know, and I'm just going to live with it.

It's time for me to get ready for work (haha, sounds funny), but this reflection is obviously not over, just as insha'Allah life isn't over. I've avoided making mistakes and I've tried to be as perfect as possible. And when I make a mistake, I don't feel comfortable pronouncing the name of God over it. But maybe herein lies the problem. Maybe I don't pronounce the name of God enough, figuratively speaking. Maybe I fear bringing God into areas of my life where I know I'm traveling a raw path. Maybe I need to come to God more often and be more frank about my vulnerabilities and when I fall into error, in the middle of it happening, instead of shutting Him out for shame that it's happening. I'm not saying sin in the name of God, but...that I need to at least hold fast to God consciousness in everything, everything, everything that I do, and not take breaks...

I don't know why I'm still single when I really don't want to be. I'm not alone. God knows, I do not. God knows why we're on this earth, and I do not. I'm going to embrace that and go about my way.

I just don't know what that all means yet.

EDIT: Hahaha, just noticed that I misspelled uncensored. This is what comes of Firefox not spell-checking my titles. That was not intentional!

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

What If I Love My Hair?

As salaam alaikum,

Gente, say hello to my tresses:

I used to wonder, and I still don't know, if you can refer to a lock of hair that is not somewhat straight as a tress. In spite of myself, it seems somewhat inappropriate.

It must be because usually, when someone is referring to their tresses, they are referring to long, straight hair...or at least loose curls. Or at least looser curls than what I've got here, growing out of my head.

When I was 20 years old and contemplating hijab for the first time, I was about one and a half years natural. At 18, I just stopped getting relaxers at the beauty shop my mother had attended since I was a kid, after 6 years of frying my hair straight...straight off of my head. I had nothing against relaxers, really. If my hair weren't my hair, I would have continued doing them for longer, I think. My hair would just not grow when chemically straightened.

No, it would grow. I'd have that crunchy new growth that required "touch-ups" every 6 weeks without fail because the crunch of that new growth was so different from the crinkly straight of my relaxed hair, it could inspire breakage.

Like that was new. Everything inspired my hair to break. Too much heat was the first culprit, as my mother used to press my hair, because that's just what you did with tightly coiled hair. You pressed it straight. The hair, especially the tightest hair in the back, began breaking. Next stop, extensions. I was one of the first little girls in my school to have the extension braids, and I wore them from age 7 to age 11. The low maintenance style helped me to attain length that I hadn't seen since before my mother started pressing my hair. Next stop, relaxer. And my hair never got longer than below my ears.

Breakage. I used to say if I look at my hair, it will break. It's not novel to me, it's just my hair type. According to all the natural hair descriptors I can muster, I have type 4b, thick, medium to fine hair. My hair type is naturally dry because the natural oils of the scalp have a heck of a time traveling up our coils. Given my hair is dry and much of the hair is fine, it is prone to breakage on its own, without the help of heat and chemicals.

And that is what I've witnessed for much of the 7 years that I've been natural. Unless my head was covered with extensions or the hijab, my hair was breaking and growing and breaking and breaking and growing.

With the advent of the new naturals of the natural hair movement and such blogs and CurlyNikki and Naptural85 and forums like LongHairCare Forum, I've been getting my hair act together. Inspired by kiddie hair movements like Sesame Street's I Love My Hair and the now-defunct Happy Girl Hair blog, I'm able to enunciate something that I've always felt: I, too, love my hair!

I love it all the ways I've worn it. I love it straight, I love it kinky. When I do it right, I love my puff, I love my two-strand twists, I love my twist-outs and braid-outs. I've even come to love my little longer than teenie-weenie afros (TWAs). I don't wear it straight a lot because that always inspires some breakage, and now that I've moved to the Pacific Northwest and workout three to four times a week, it doesn't make much sense. And now that I'm taking care of my hair and actually retaining health and length and not having huge breakage cycles that sets me back, I really love my hair!

But back to me at 20.

At 20, I was contemplating hijab and would begin wearing it later that year. I had a lot of questions in my own mind when I began wearing it. I transitioned out of the last set of extensions I will ever have (insha'Allah) and back to my natural hair while wearing the scarf, and my hair at the time was big and glorious, even bigger than it is now. Sometimes I would wear a puff under my scarf and therefore have the most uniquely shaped hijab around...which was easy, being the only black Muslimah I knew on my college campus. Sometimes, I'd have a slightly lumpy hijab from my box braids underneath. To this day, I still own all of my scarves that I wore as a hijabi, and more. I keep buying scarves as if I still cover my hair so frequently. I like wearing scarves. I don't like isolation. But that's not a subject for today.

One of the questions I had as a woman with natural hair with a scarf was...wondering if a future husband would be pleased with me. I don't know. Men's perceptions of me are the root of nearly all of my insecurities.

I'd always been told that, for men, physical attraction is a stronger element of their attraction schema than it is for women. So if I'm a covered woman, a covered black woman, and men have some preferences for what they want in a wife...could I, in fact, end up disappointing my future husband when he finds out that I do not have straight hair and I will not permanently straighten my hair?

And given ghusl requirements, I will not be able to keep up heat straightening my hair, either?

My hair can be long, but it won't be flowing. It won't be slick, sleek or shiny. It won't bounce and behave, I won't swing it from side to side. I'm sorry, babes, is that something that you wanted?

At 21 and donning hijab, I still didn't know how that would work.

Somewhere in my personal journal or the recesses of my mind, though I loved my own hair, I wondered if my type of hair was ever the beauty that Muslims sought so vigorously to protect and defend when they asserted the importance of hijab. I would be guarding my beauty for my husband, they asserted.

But what if my husband doesn't find my kinky hair beautiful? Did I just defeat the purpose in more ways than one?

I was told that the Bible says that a woman's hair is her crown of glory (investigating further, looking at Proverbs 16:31, it's actually talking about gray hair, for wisdom). And I wondered if hair like mine was what was in mind when such ideas were created.

As a black woman who wore her hair as it grew out of her head, covering my hair didn't necessarily feel like I was guarding my beauty for my husband or protecting myself from other's judgment of my beauty. It was respite from trying to find ways for my natural hair to look "presentable," to be sure, it was respite from manipulation and it allowed my hair to grow without breaking so much, but covering my hair was not a respite from judgment. And it did not inspire respect from most of those around me...

But that's not a subject for today.

I tried to rationalize, as I covered my hair, why my hair was worth covering in the way that many hijabis spoke about the benefits of covering their hair. There were many things that black women with shorter, kinky hair did to their hair to ornament it, make it beautiful, that warranted it being covered, to keep the beauty concealed...braiding and beading, all of the styles that have been lost on some of us women of the Continent in favor of weaves, wigs and chemicals.

And I just realized...this is all messed up. Why am I trying to rationalize my reason for covering? Why am I trying to figure out if my hair was what was in mind all the times when people called upon women to cover? Why am I suddenly worrying if my hair will be what a man wants?

What if I love my hair? It's not a curse of Cain or anything else that makes me who I am. It is the love of God and the beauty that he instilled in all of us, His creation. I am no less of a beauty than my sisters with long, straight hair or my sisters with looser curls.

Thus began the long and unpredictably arduous task of defining myself outside of the realm of men.

But above is my hair. My locks that are not locs, is not an afro, is not a natural, is my hair. It's actually a days-old twist-out that I pulled into a puff with a loosening headband that is obscured by my hair, but it's all me.

Will a man find it beautiful such that he prefers it over every other type of hair, want it for himself, be offended that he sees it and demand that I cover it, for the sake of Allah (swt), for my own sake, for my protection, out of respect for me, that such a thing of beauty should be only for my husband and those of my mahram?

I don't know, but I can't care.

This post was inspired in part by a series started by Saliha. The rest of it was inspired by that particularly cute twist out puff that was super moisturized and made me reflect on how so many times, I won't allow myself to love myself because of fear that a man won't love me the way I love myself the most.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Music Mondays: All I Do

As salaam alaikum,

I had a lovely weekend, but God help me...I have some important decisions to make soon, and I hope I don't screw up. I'm praying God is with me all the way and helps me not make dumb decisions. Cryptic, I know. You can only imagine...

My cousin was up with her baby daughter for much of the night, and ended up watching TV One's "Unsung," a show about R&B artists who were once popular whose legacy has been since lost for one reason or another. The last episode that I was not able to watch all the way was that of the Bar-Kays, who were recent high school grads when all but two of the original band members perished in a plane crash that also took Otis Redding's life. Otis was only 26, and I still see in my mind's eye the picture of his lifeless body, still buckled in his seat, being pulled from the waters of Lake Michigan, I believe it was.

God! That was so sad...

Tammi Terrell's "Unsung" episode was no exception. The poor thing was gang raped as a child and went in and out of relationships and was sometimes abused, at the hands of such R&B greats as James Brown (yes...did not know he was a woman beater) and David Ruffin. Her albums of duets with Marvin Gaye would be the pinnacle of her career. Barely strong enough to sing through the third album, she died shortly thereafter, succumbing to a long battle with brain cancer, an aggressive glioma that did not give her respite. She was 24.

If the name does not ring a bell, perhaps her hits with Marvin, such as "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" and "Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing," will spark some recognition.

"Ain't No Mountain High Enough," though peaking at #19 and #3 on the pop and R&B charts at the time, respectively, and being eclipsed by Diana Ross's cover that hit #1 years later, would become emblematic of Motown hits for later generations. Tammi and Marvin's duets would be covered, used for sentimental commercials and period movies for some time, immortalizing the song.

And their duets are great songs, written expertly by Ashford and Simpson. Rest in peace, Mr. Ashford.

I wanted to see if she'd recorded anything else that I knew, so I searched her in youtube. The first song that showed up was entitled, "All I Do Is Think About You," and I wondered if it had anything to do with Stevie Wonder's song, and maybe if it was a cover. So I played it, and it was...eerie, to say the least.

Here's the original:

Written by a 16-year-old Stevie Wonder in 1966, this song was meant for Tammi. She sung it, recorded it, but it was not released by Motown. She was 20 years old at the time of recording this. She died four years later in 1970. Stevie would later release the song that he wrote for his own album 10 years after her death, 1980, as "All I Do." This version became a hit, and Tammi's version would not be released until over 30 years after her death.

Here's Stevie's recording:

And though I grew up on Stevie's version, and it reminds me of my mother's relationship with my brother (as she described it, after he was diagnosed, all I did was think about him), so it always has special meaning for me and my family...there's a haunting quality about Tammi's vocals and presentation of the song that make me like it.

And just to make things even more random, of the people providing background vocals for Stevie's version are Eddie Levert and...Michael Jackson.

Thank you, wikipedia, for providing me with minutes of bewildered entertainment tonight!

Tammi was a beautiful vocalist, Stevie is a wonderful lyricist and performer, and life...subhan'Allah! May He have mercy on us all...

And that is your Music Monday.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Happy Father's Day to my non-Muslim Father

As salaam alaikum,

First, a shout-out to one of the editors of Love, InshAllah, Ayesha, and the ladies of the anthology (and their fathers) as mentioned in this HuffPost piece, "Father's Day: A Love Letter to Muslim Fathers." This is a lovely piece about real Muslim fathers, real Muslim men who are loving, compassionate and accommodating of their daughter's loves and aspirations. And though I love my Christian father like none other and could not love him any more, reading the piece made me feel the continued void of Muslim men, real Muslim men, in my life.

My grandfather was the primary Muslim man in my life, and even then, his practice has always been very private. The only other practicing Muslim man in my family growing up was one of my uncles, my mother's youngest brother. But growing up, when I visited my family in Flint, the Muslim men I saw praying were the men at the Islamic Center and the local masjid were all unrelated black men in the community. But I was mostly exposed to practicing Muslim grandmother, one of my aunts in particular, and my mother. These were the people I witnessed pray the most, read the Qur'an the most, reflect on their spirituality the most...

I was, however, exposed to the praying, beliefs and devotion of a Christian man. No, my father did not attend church, which is considered by most Christians to be integral to one's faith. But as a child, I watched him read his Bible, his King James, Jesus (as) text in red Bible, I watched with him sometimes his favorite televangelist, Reverend Price (Evidence! Evidence!), I listened to his Mormon Tabernacle Choir some Sundays, I prayed with him as he led prayers over our food and before journeys. My father is, in fact, the most practicing religious man that I know.

And yet, I aspired to marry a Muslim man, without too many examples of Muslim men in my life. I do, however, have an example of a good man in my life, and that is my father. A man who loves God, who is humble, sometimes to the point of being self-deprecating, one who is striving actively in the way of God as he believes to be fit, who provides for his family, who loves us all dearly, who is dedicated to his responsibilities as husband and father, who is a diligent and tireless worker, who is fiercely intelligent to the point where I'm convinced he's a genius (and I'm not just saying that because I'm his daughter), who is patient, who is gentle, who loves and respects my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins as his own blood...

And so many other attributes. I never demonized my father for being Christian, though I am often frustrated by his seeming intolerance of my being Muslim sometimes. As a matter of fact, as a gift to him on father's day, I'm listening to several of the sermons from his church, as he always wants me to do, so we can discuss it if he wants. I couldn't help but open my Islamicity Qur'an search to find those parallel ayat in the Qur'an that speaks to essential theological differences that scream out to me as I listen to his pastor. I can't fault him. This is the man who taught me to blow my nose in a very specific way...closing one nostril and then blowing out one, then repeating on the opposite side. Because he blows his nose that way and he was convinced that was the most efficient and effective way to do it.

Of course he's going to try to expose me to his way of believing and approaching God, because he is my father.

I do sometimes, often times, wish I had more good Muslim men in my life, including a Muslim husband. But, no contest, I'd rather have my father in my life, exactly as he is, and as he's always been.

I love you, Daddy. Happy Father's Day.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

[uncensored]: Whatever Happened to RMD?

As salaam alaikum,

Mo’s so light he feels like flying yet he knows better than to grin wildly at this point. This is no smiling matter, less a laughing matter, and he finds himself another night trekking home with clothing improper for the chill of the evening, his mind fixed on her.

He slipped a while back because they’ve had a freak ice storm and it’s hard to tell the black of the ice from the black of the asphalt and the sidewalks are even worse. He steadies himself and resumes his resolute pace. 

Mo stares at his feet and about four feet before him to ensure that he doesn’t slip on yet another ice patch. He also notices that he swings his left foot out farther than his right when he walks. He forgets the ice and finds himself zeroing in on his left foot and contrasting its swing to that of his right.

Nisreen’s laughing at him. “What is it?” he asks, turning back. It’s one of the warmer days, and she’s wearing a light-weight pink blouse with a neckline low enough that it’s showing her chest a bit whenever the wind blows her scarf. She’s standing near the front door to her apartment building, and he can hear her cackle despite the whirring of the wind that is whipping about them. 

“I’ve grown accustomed to your stride,” she remarks as he returns with her mail in one hand, her mailbox keys in the other.
“How’s that funny?” he inquires, as she holds the screen door open for him. She follows closely behind him.

“I don’t know.  It’s just so characteristically you,” she answers, giving him a halfway grin. “You kind of have a clumsy way of going about it, like you’re involuntarily throwing your left foot from beneath you.”

This is an excerpt from RMD that I may or may not have posted before. For my readers who have come along post-RMD mention, RMD, A Rose Much Desired, is the first novel I've actually competed as an adult. I try to get my family members to read it before I do my next round of major edits, but no one seems to get through it, so I've nicknamed it "The Brick."

To give a little bit of background of the story, I first dreamed up the plot for RMD during a creative writing class my senior year of college. I was struggling writing short stories for this course, partly because of a teacher who brought her own personal opinions on the character's motivations dominate during the discussion of the writing. RMD started out as an assignment to practice writing enthralling first-paragraphs of stories. I thought, what if I wrote a first paragraph for a story in which a practicing Muslim wakes up from a one-night-stand.

Thus was born Mo, afraid of the woman that he'd just slept with as he recognizes that she's awaken and is staring up at him.

After reading the paragraph out-loud (which was difficult for me, as a then-hijabi and one who doesn't curse in public, to read aloud the word "shit"), my instructor questioned the motives of the female involved. Why is she angry, she asked? She did it, didn't she?

Seriously, professor? You do not think that anger is a probable emotional outcome of a one-night stand? The character is not you, after all.

I ignored that comment, but began imagining the story more. Who is the woman behind the one-night stand? Who is Mo? What led them there? What is their story?

I began sketching out the short story, which I called, "Agent," as a possible short story for the second half of my semester in creative writing. I didn't get "Agent" done in time enough, so I instead wrote a story called "Drinking Water," a play off of Tom Jobim's "Agua de Beber," but it was a story based in the DR, with a character, Jannah, based on me, trying to figure out where her morals lay, from her mode of dress to whether she dances in public, while on the island of Hispaniola, while being courted by a friendly Dominican man.

It was okay at best.

But, it was the first semi-autobiographical piece I had written. As I'd noticed in my freshman year creative writing class, the story that I wrote in which one of the characters was closer to myself got more of a response (Gloria in "Garota" was both me and my best friend, who had recently come out to depression and my best friends attraction to women). There was something more authentic about the whole piece if at least one of the characters was real, in a sense.

And so I went back to the drawing board on "Agent," after the class was over. I began writing scenes, while flying to medical school second-looks, while taking a trip with my parents to Disney, during the break between lectures...anytime I got. I was beginning to fall in love with the story of Mo and the difficult woman that he made the mistake of sleeping with.

Except, the character I chose to make myself was that woman...

I put myself in that woman's shoes, the woman who awoke angrily to a Muslim man after a one-night stand, and wondered what I would have done. The story blew up after that, took on a life of it's own. "Agent" became a novel and "Agent" was no longer a proper name for a novel, so I brainstormed before I came up with the perfect name: "A Rose Much Desired."

I think I came up with the name only after I began outlining the plot of the story, only after a blogging friend of mine recommended that I do National Novel Writers' Month in November of 2007. Since RMD was growing, I took that as an opportunity to push myself to write my first novel. It grew to three narrations. "Agent," was the story of Mo, "Desirée" was the story of the woman he was sleeping with, and how she became so enamored of Muslim men that she specifically sought Mo out, and "Muslimah" is the story of Nisreen, the Muslim woman who sees Mo's distress and embarks on a journey to help him out of what she feels is a spiritual deficit.

I "won" NaNoWriMo, writing over 50,000 words in one month (while learning anatomy), and added bits and pieces to the novel (I really was in the last quarter of the book and got writers block). I wouldn't finish RMD until November 2010, three years after I began.

I had declared a "Center of Awesomeness," that can be seen in my journal at the time. I was going to finish the story! Around the same time, I met who would become my notorious ex, Ex the Prototype. He was gentle and kind, and passive in his attraction to me, and I think that was why I let him in. He didn't have the underlying voracious sexual energy that other guys who liked me had, so I was less threatened by him. Honestly.

And let me not front, we had a lot of other things in common...besides, of course, religion, which I worried about.

But while that was worrying me, I finished RMD, finally. I printed it out at the medical school, while we still had unlimited printing, I edited it by hand and then edited it on the word-processor. This was not my first of may edits to the text.

I prepared my family to read it, and my best friend...and then Ex the Prototype wanted to read it.

It required a lot of trust to email him that manuscript, but I did.

Meanwhile, my mother declared that she couldn't read it after only getting past the first chapter, that she didn't like Desirée and if it weren't my writing, she wouldn't care any more about her to continue reading. And, she said when she read Desirée, she just saw me, and it was distracting.

Which is effective, because Desirée is me.

And other comments that were marginally constructive criticism. She then pointed me to one of her favorite authors, Eric Jerome Dickey, and I was a little taken aback. She didn't get far enough into the story to realize that that was not the kind of novel I was going for, but okay.

Then none of my cousins and friends could complete the story.

The final sinker was the ex. And this was in a time (while he was still with me) that I really hung on his every word. He said he was distracted because the guy didn't sound like a guy in the first chapter, that it was "weird," but he'd try to keep reading. Then, a few days later, he told me, regrettably, that he wouldn't be able to read it.

I was sad. I didn't really mind that my mother couldn't read is awkward to read a story about a character that seems like your daughter in a sexual situation. Sorry, Mom. But my ex, who usually liked my writing (campy things like my skit for the Second Year Show included), couldn't get through RMD?

Maybe I didn't write Mo realistically. I really needed people to get through half of the story to realize what I was trying to do with the three narrations, the three central characters...but no one ever did. And Ex the Prototype's comments were the most paralyzing.

...even though he also made these comments before getting through the story.

And then he broke up with me about a month later (no, not because RMD was that bad, haha), and I was devastated for a long time, mainly because I had wasted my time on him, had been so ambivalent about him and how being with him would affect my faith, making so many compromises and then he just made the unilateral decision that he was no longer satisfied with the relationship, no longer attracted to me, and bounced.

But for months afterwards, I still took his criticism of RMD seriously.

And I haven't touched it since.

I told myself it was because family members couldn't read it, that I was waiting for someone to finish it, but honestly, none of them ever will. Over a year and a half has passed since I emailed them the manuscript. The beginning of the story is harder to read than the second part because I wrote that part in one month, and while I did the most edits on that part, there are major things that need to change, I recognize.

It's just hard, because the story gets so much more dynamic after that...I really needed people to get to the turning point and tell me what I can do to facilitate the reading of the first part.

I guess I need non-related reviewers, as well.

But if I'm honest with myself, I also didn't touch RMD because I started applying to residency, and since then, I've been busy interviewing, wrapping up medical school, and now moving across the country.

Even though I don't care for Ex the Prototype anymore, and have successfully cut him off from all contact, I still took his criticism seriously.

But then, I think about other things he's said.

Although he claims that he respects women and many of his political and activist role models are women (one of the thing that initially endeared him to me, despite my initial lack of attraction for him), he also made gender-divisive comments through the course of the relationship. Things like, "Well, I'd expect you to say/feel that way, because you are a woman."

The sinker was actually after our relationship, when I was, against my will, flying next to him to our mutual friend's wedding in St. Louis. He was reading, for the first time, Chimamanda Adichie. He talked about how he usually doesn't like reading fiction about women or written by women. It doesn't appeal to him, but he was able to read Chimamanda, maybe because she wrote about Nigeria, but she was just...different.

That gave me insight into his being unable to read RMD at the time...because it was written by me, a woman, unapologetically woman with what could be considered stereotypical female tendencies and sensibilities that are also evident in my writing. My characters are introspective. Mo is, yes, minimally introspective and tries to interpret female's faces, but so did the man that Mo was based on, a man who wrote once that he was struck up a conversation with "the girl" sitting next to him in the computer lab, and as she sorted through her album, she had that "crooked smile that girls get when they're looking at pictures of people they love."

(We used to read each other's journals, back in the day...this is how I had access to things like that).

So while he was unable to connect with Mo because he was not introspective, not particularly empathic, all of which allowed him to break up with me so awkwardly...he also was one of those men who insisted that women didn't make sense to them. Men who don't try hard enough to see the humanity in their female counterparts.

He was not my audience. So why did I worry so much about what he thought?

Because I once respected him. And even after he told me mean things about my body, I still held on to that part that I respected. It took me a long time to not internalize his criticism and give up RMD for shelved, lost, still my baby, but maybe not worth the fight to perfect it.

And maybe it isn't worth the fight, but it damn well won't be because of that ex.

I'm still reading this Jennifer Weiner piece about supporting women writers, but as usual for me, I'll read something, get a sudden inspiration, and have to write it immediately. I can't believe that I internalize a feeling of inferiority about the issues that concern me as a woman, and what I write about, in comparison to the writings of men. There are other men, authors, who have, similarly to my ex, proclaimed the superiority of male writing, saying men have more depth than women. As an unabashed writer of chick lit, she speaks out for the right to write as she pleases.

That's right!

Would the world be a better place without chick lit? Only if you consider those who read chick lit dispensable. And though, admittedly, I don't think I've ever read anything that could fit into that genre (probably, as a preteen and teenager, I've read enough young adult novels that would grow up to be chick lit), I'm not mad at it. To express distaste and disdain about someone else's writing as a fellow author is either ugly pretentiousness or just straight hating.

For example, I tend to be a little hipster and I don't like reading the most popular series. I tried Harry Potter, and it was okay to me. Just not my thing. Heard about Twilight. Not into that. Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and etc? Not where my interests lie. But I don't go around dissing the authors.

There's something out there for everyone, and nothing is for everyone. RMD may insult male sensibilities because it's driven in parts by introspective monologues. The man that characterizes something as inherently female and thereafter relinquishes all attempts to understand it are not my audience and besides basic cordiality I have nothing to say to them, either. They obviously don't see me.

I'm reading this in the wake of reading the piece in the Atlantic about not being someone's wife but being perceived as such in the workplace (which makes me wonder if some men just have five schema for adult women: slut, wife, mother, grandma) and how that impacts women's ability to be promoted. I also read this piece about how women physician-scientists are paid markedly less than their male counterparts, and it's not all about being wives and mothers, either.

And, after talking to a friend of mine who reminds me of Ex the Prototype in the way he always is sure to define for me what is a female sensibility, and therefore what he doesn't understand.

Some of the things are not that hard. Seriously, like, "I don't understand why females are so into clothes." Really?

So, for reasons other than it needs a lot of work, haha, RMD is going into hibernation. If I have downtime while I'm a resident, I'll revisit it, make some drastic rewrites in the first half of the story, try to get my fam to read it again. Maybe I'll find someone else who'll want to read it, but I really need to fix some of the writing before I send it off. But I shouldn't be ashamed any more that I write female-centered stories, of my "feminine" sensibilities, or anything else. Yes, my blog is kind of pink and only women seem to read it, but so what?

The worst thing that could happen to any of my writing is me changing it up so I'd think a man would want to read it as if seeking validation.

Now! time for me to get ready for my day! I'm going to the mall to buy some new flats and some dress blouses to make up for the ones that FedEx lost.

Monday, June 11, 2012


As salaam alaikum,

Interestingly, someone arrived at my site by searching to see if Esperanza Spalding is Muslim. Probably got to the site because I frequently post about my musical spirit sister and I'm Muslim. Whoever it was probably heard the lyrics to "Vague Suspicions," and thought, a person who writes lyrics like this, so sympathetic to Muslims, recognizing that Christians and Muslims in fact do worship the same God must be Muslim.

Not necessarily, hehe, but nice thought.

I feel like every few years, there's some celebrity that we get excited about being Muslim. Like we're seeking validation. I'm not mad at that, but I'm much happier to hear the sympathy in her lyrics for civilian victims of this Orwellian war (as well as sympathy for the young men and women from our country that have their blood senselessly on their hands), to hear her belief and struggle-with-belief in God so poetically expressed in song. She is so right on with that song.

I'll post the lyrics at the end of this entry, because people don't seem to be understanding what she's saying on any of the lyrics sites I visited, haha.

But I also had Esperanza's arrangement of "Endagered Species" in my mind on Sunday morning when I woke up and felt like I'm slowly going extinct.

I was alarmed when Islamicity calculated 'Isha' for midnight and fajr for a little after 2am here in Seattle, knowing that the days are just going to get longer for a while. I started going to mosque sites in the Seattle area to confirm an alternate prayer time calculation that I saw that is more reasonable ('isha' a bit after 11, fajr around 3am). I didn't just want to go with one because it suited me better, so I had to make sure it was something the mosques in the area were following.

As I investigated the prayer time calculations (they seem to go with ISNA), I explored some of the mosque websites. I checked out one site's "women's activities," and it talked about the various halaqas. Besides the introductory halaqas for new Muslimahs or Muslimahs hoping to review the basics, the only other one is in Arabic. They were to address the woman "molding" herself into "the ideal Muslimah."

That, and the fact that the page had not been updated since 2005, got me discouraged.

For some time, I've not been interested in other people's opinions of what an ideal Muslimah is and how I should be her. I tried that. The good Muslims of my community still did not have space for me. It was disappointing. And an ideal Muslimah is not ideal if she exists in isolation.

What sense does it make for anyone, man or woman, to exist in isolation? It doesn't

I was tired of, "Well, maybe if I just do this, if I just do that...then I'll fit." Where was I?

Where am I?

I've been back for a while, rebuilding my identity, stumbling my way through Erikson's Identity vs. Role Confusion and am now fully to Intimacy vs. Isolation.

Intimacy vs. Isolation.

Intimacy. No one loves me for my Islam. Men are either interested in me in spite of the Islam or in ignorance of the Islam. Yes, even Muslim men, on both counts. In spite of me not being Muslim enough, in spite of me being Muslim, whichever your pleasure. And if my submission to God is the biggest part of me, don't I deserve to be with someone who loves that about me? Not I like it, but...I don't understand it, it bothers me, it's insufficient, it could be better for my tastes, I could do without it.

Isolation. It's easiest for me to be Muslim in isolation. Meaning, it's easiest for me to submit to the will of God if I do so alone. The world outside is so toxic, toxic on both sides, the Muslim and the non. It's clearly the work of the devil that our communities are so rent asunder that someone like me struggles to find a place for herself. That so many of us are slipping in and out of obscurity just to keep our heads above water, just to hold onto the faith, the way of being that injects our lives with beauty, hope and God's grace.

It's a shame.

At the same time, I feel like I'm slowly going extinct. I feel like I'm slipping into irrelevance in this world, that I don't make sense, never have, and will continue to do so, because of the way I live and the way that I choose to submit to God.

Have faith, stay strong, pray, they all say. The earliest believers went through trials that you cannot imagine. I know. The Qur'an tells us that we'd best believe that those before us suffered trials and pleaded with God, wondering when He would come through (2:214). And for the believer, there is many a lonely road, but also life abundant (4:100). Alhamdulillah, I have abundant life, even as I trek my lonely road.

So this must be a trial for me. This must be a trial for me but I can't help but think that I'm going extinct. That my existence in this life is as a shadow, that I'm a shell. I'm someone whose purpose is for others, for others, for others, and rarely for me.

That what I've allocated for myself is just a stipend to keep me alive and healthy to continue to serve others.

And don't get me wrong, I live to serve others. I believe that's a big part of all of our purposes of seek out ways to help our fellow human beings through this life. Allahu a'lam. But for a change, I want something for myself. I want companionship. I want a partner who loves me for my Islam. That's the only thing that I want that is mine. Service and self-service all in one. And while I recognize that my desire to have children isn't entirely alturistic, motherhood would be another realm in which I'm giving of myself, of myself, of myself, and little for myself.

I want a man who loves God and, by extension, loves my Islam, for myself.

Because if I don't get it, I'll go extinct. I'll live life going through the motions, a living shell that works for others and that stipend that just sustains her, day after day, month after month...

In the name of God, I'm going extinct.

Vague Suspicions - Esperanza Spalding

On the neon news, they won't be talking about his life
That was still unfolding when he had to fly
Toward, toward God

May this war end, insha'Allah, he knelt to pray
When a dusty troop misjudged and blew him away
Strangers, same God

They are faceless numbers in the headlines we all read
Drone strike leaves thirteen civilians dead
Hold that thought
My God!

Maybe your heart is seized with passing pitty for the dead
And vague suspicions creep into your head
Am I part of one?
And what is God for?

Next, on channel four, celebrity gossip

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Weekend Throwback: Odd Inspiration

As salaam alaikum,

I just thought of this song suddenly while reading a blog. I'm not sure why. I find that when something is on my mind, a song of a similar theme will suddenly pop into my head and play on repeat for a few minutes until I'm aware of what I'm thinking of.

Earlier today, it was Whitney Houston's "How Will I Know" (for perhaps obvious reasons) and Esperanza Spalding's "City of Roses" (the latter is an approximation, because I'm in the Pacific Northwest, not Portland, though-- Seattle, and I find it quite lovely).

Then, "Holding Back the Years." I tried to remember how I felt about it at the time it was Odd Inspiration for me, but I think I remember now. Reading the old entry certainly helps. This is back from my original InvisibleMuslimah. If I didn't know I was studying for the boards at the time I wrote this, I'd think I was reading old literature with how thick my prose is in spots, haha:

Monday March 30, 2009
As salaam alaikum,

I draw inspiration from odd places.  Most recently, it has been from the song, "Holding Back the Years" by Simply Red.  I don't reminds me of my life up to this point, and how I've said so many times that I wasted time/energy pining for a man who didn't see me the same way at all, while I didn't realize how much I was growing and becoming the woman I wanted to be outside of that situation.

Sometimes we get stuck on a path that doesn't work for us, not because it's not destiny, just because it doesn't work.  Something could work, and that also could not be our destiny...but other times, it just doesn't work.  Like cogs in a rounded, one sharp.  The gear doesn't work, you force it, and now you've broken things.  Or, you don't force it, and just figure out that the reason it didn't because it doesn't work.

I live a lot in my mind, as I was saying in my last entry.  Everything on the outside could be fine but in my mind exists a reality which I found out, shockingly so, is not the closest approximation to reality.  In my mind, I was a failure.  I was unattractive, I was a poor excuse for a human being.  I had wasted years when I was younger.  Anyone close to me (or that read my journal) knows about these inside feelings, but outside...masha'Allah, I was getting things done!

All in my head...

This song, "Holding Back the Years" reminds me of the reality that existed in my head.  The conception of me as a failure while life is moving along around me, but not leaving me behind...I'm traveling with it...and alhamdulillah, I always have...

Holding back the years
Thinking of the fear I've had so long
When somebody hears
Listen to the fear that's gone
Strangled by the wishes of pater
Hoping for the arms of mater
Get to me the sooner or later

Holding back the years
Chance for me to escape from all I've known
Holding back the tears
Cause nothing here has grown
I've wasted all my tears
Wasted all those years
And nothing had the chance to be good
Nothing ever could

I'll keep holding on
I'll keep holding on
I'll keep holding on
I'll keep holding on
So tight

Well I've wasted all my tears
Wasted all of those years
And nothing had the chance to be good
Cause nothing ever could...

I'll keep holding on
I'll keep holding on
I'll keep holding on
I'll keep holding on
Holding, holding, holding

That's all I have today
It's all I have to say

This song seems sad, but I don't interpret it that way...oddly.  When he says, "I've wasted my tears/ wasted all these years./ Nothing had the chance to be good/ nothing ever could," I interpret that as my coming to the realization that, yes, energy was wasted, and because I was in that state, that downward spiral state, I didn't give the good things in my life a chance to be good...I wanted things to be bad.  I wanted to feel bad, whatever the get it all out at once or the[n] revel in it grotesquely.
I throw myself into an unnecessarily tumultuous existence, not allowing myself to realize my blessings.

"Thinking of the fear I've had so long."  Yes.  I've been afraid of life.  I move forward on some things, but some things, the things I feel I have the least control over, I'm afraid of.  And yet, Allah (swt) has blessed me with all of this, with barely my asking, barely my praying, barely my dreaming for it, and I'm going to doubt enough to fear for my future?

I'm not sure what it means to hold back the years (thus the title of the song), but I'm taking it to mean...I'm going to put those years behind me.  I want to remember them, I want to revel in them or get them over with, lest I return, but I'm going to put them away for good...forever...
I'll keep holding on to my faith, even though yes, I wasted time...Allah (swt) carried me through, little did I recognize until this point.  My mind wasn't where it needed to be for a long time, and now, alhamdulillah, it's starting to be.  He's carried me through, He's protected me, He's protecting me from my own foolishness...

So it's my inspiration.  It's saying goodbye to that fear.  With open eyes, I move forward carefully, faithful that Allah (swt) is poised to support me at all times, and never leaves me alone.

I'm going to give things more of a chance to be good. :-)


Friday, June 8, 2012

American Gender, Part IV

As salaam alaikum,

I think I started this series after reflecting about the quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. that I posted a bit ago in my journal. I'm so used to interpreting quotes that say "man" as "humankind," and so used to, as a woman who is not a wife and mother, positioning myself in what may be regarded as a man's place because I don't have those two very important responsibilities...that it sounded daunting to me. There are quite a few truths to be stood for today...why wasn't I standing for them? I rationalized that, by choosing to go into medicine in spite of the fact that the system is very broken, going into primary care as many threaten that it may be a thing of the past for physicians, I am standing for one of those truths, although in a very passive way.

Should I take a more active stance, stand out in the street, yell, scream and demand justice? Should I not fear for my career, my safety? Should I not fear indefinite detainment with no trial?

Or was King's message only for men, really?

As a woman at 27 who prefers to keep herself safe, to secure her career, rather than put my career and freedom on the line to speak for these truths in the face of tyranny, corruption and greed in this country and indeed the global I dead at 27? Or does my gender not carry with it the same obligation?

Despite being a woman whose primary aspiration for so long has been marriage and child-rearing, I must say...the idea that I am exempt certain obligations because I am a woman, and especially those ideas within Islam, have been, admittedly, hard to palate. Don't get me wrong, I completely understand it, and it makes logical sense. Say I were a mother right now. No, absolutely not will I take to the streets without fear of my fate while leaving children behind. And to require that of mothers would be illogical and immoral on several levels, but at base it would be harmful for the sake of society. I totally understand that.

But what about me? I am unmarried (and not for lack of trying, haha!) and I have no children. Is the exemption from obligation just for the sake of that essential societal role that we play in production and maintenance of the next generation? Or, to be blunt, is it the fact that I have a fertile womb that determines my exemption, regardless of whether or not I am a mother?

I'm not trying to be flip. I'm trying to understand something that bothers relative complacence. Complacence in the face of what? Injustices that we all should be taking to the street for, but most of us don't...most of us, unfortunately, out of ignorance. Because we're kept dumb by reality television, and the various media that should inform us misinforms us. If we knew all that was going on, we'd be taking to the street..., does my gender dictate that I should protect myself? For the sake of myself, my childbearing potential, the future of the human race? Is that really what it's all about? That it takes less than the sperm on the head of a pin to fertilize a bunch of women (I forget the stat, haha) but with a paucity of wombs, what is the race to do?

I don't know.

After so long of not limiting my career aspirations because of my gender, while tailoring them because of my desire to raise children in a similar way that some of my male counterparts have tailored their seems so weird to consider myself exempt from such an important social responsibility, just because.

I don't think it's just because, of course. There is eternal wisdom hidden beneath tradition and cultural influence that governs how most of our societies determine gender roles. A lot of us look for it, and in trying so hard to see it, to see God's face, I think we err on the sides of extremes and fail to realize the flexibility there actually is in the roles that we adopt for our specific family's, community's and society's needs.

So, in the post-apocalypic society that I created in the story for my friend, the character A was just one of several other women who aspired to join their nations' militias to battle for prominence in the land. She was seen as no more or less woman for the choice she made in fighting over remaining home with children, protecting them as the nations battled in close proximity to the settlements. Her activism was clear. C took on another type of activism, opting for peaceful abstention from the battles, taking societies of mainly women and some children away from the warring nations, salvaging parts of the old world in hopes of creating something sustainable, and fiercely defending themselves from being violated by the men of the nations.

In the story, A and C's suitor end up close battle partners, and C gives her suitor up for lost. Not that A and the suitor have a romantic relationship, but A takes a place with the suitor that C cannot, the love of battle, and she knows that she would never feel as if she were sufficiently relating to the man without being able to share with him this element that is very important to him. The suitor gets so caught up with his new battle partner, his nation's new secret weapon, that he doesn't even notice that C's dropped him, as her society moves on. And A, while thankful to her childhood friend, barely has time for a goodbye as she realize her dream. C takes her society on to safer, higher grounds.

And she's seen as no more or no less of a woman than her childhood friend.

My friend, who was A, is now the only female orthopedic surgery resident in her class at her program. She got her masters in engineering, so she's used to being in a male-majority field. The little warrior that she is, she had some setbacks, fretted over her shortcomings, but was able to match at a great program in the end and is on her way to become an orthopedic surgeon. It works out. She's a former jock. She fits right into the stereotype.

After a fairly smooth academic course, majoring in biology and Spanish in college, I am on my way with my public health degree in tow to become a family physician. I look forward to delivering babies, attending to pregnant and new mothers, promoting women's health and providing competent care to people and families of all ages who need it the most.

I think our roles in the story were pretty accurate of who we would grow up to be.

And these were expressions of my American gender.

Monday, June 4, 2012

American Gender, Part III

As salaam alaikum,

When I first dreamed up the story for my friend, I didn't really intend their to be symbolism. I just knew that she liked the genre fantasy and I thought it would be easier to write a fantasy short story in a post-apocalyptic world tending toward chaos than an imaginary world with imaginary creatures. And since this was a post-apocalyptic world, of course the characters would have to be our distant relations and not us, but I tried to write us. I wanted a character to reflect my friend's warrior personality and encourage her to continue pushing forward in life. Young, petite A, who was turned away from her own nation's militia, was directed to an up-and-coming militia by her childhood friend C and was excepted. She made up for her lack of height and weight because of her ingenuity, flexibility and strategy when it came to battle, and C's suitor recognized this skill in her and felt she would be one of the secret weapons that would catapult his nation to prominence.

C looked on, faulting herself for encouraging her friend into the brutality of battle, no less in the militia of the man she was interested in, but at the same time recognized that this was the way her friend saw fit in carrying out the meaning of her life, and she had just a right to do it as C carried out her own.

While, for most of my life, the gender roles of my parents were pretty traditional and straightforward, I was exposed to different models in my own family, as well as in the media. The most prominent example of an alternative setup were my grandparents. I got to know my grandparents in their late 50s and early 60s, around the age my parents are now. Before that, when they married at 17 and 21, I imagine that their household setup was very traditional. The majority of the stories I hear from my mother reinforce this. My grandmother stayed home with her ever-expanding family (she would eventually have 10 children) while my grandfather worked in the automotive plant, providing for the 12 of them. My grandmother and the kids kept up the house. My grandmother cooked and the girls helped her with cooking and cleaning. The boys took out the garbage. Everyone made their own bed the way that Grandfather had learned to do in his stent in the army...and they had to be done just so, too.

If the kids acted up, all it took was a "wait until you're father gets home" to get the kids back in line. Grandfather would still be ready with the belt upon Grandmother's report.

They were poor, but they survived. Their setup was traditional but obviously necessary. Working the assembly line was lucrative and demanded of my grandfather the use of his physical strength. Grandmother had 10 children, so of course she was at home.

The setup of the household was different by the time I grew up. I perceived my grandparents' home as a matriarchy. I used to refer to it as Grandmother's house, and not just for the sake of abbreviation. Grandmother talked the most, the fastest, and the loudest. She single-handedly kept their modest house clean, cooked food for them both and whoever was over, directed the children who came into the house, instructed the adults. Grandfather was a classic grandfather...we'd sit in his lap and he'd make horsey sounds as we galloped on his knee, he gave us suckers from his never-ending supply of suckers like the doctor's office, except these weren't the nasty, sugar-free kind. He let us sip his coffee when it was really hot, making us feel adult. He read and highlighted his dictionary, read his "Final Call" newspaper, watched his news and besides complaining about that, was otherwise relegated to the background of the house. It always seemed like Grandmother ran this.

I knew both of my grandparents were Muslim, but Grandmother was always more visibly so by virtue of the fact that she wore hijab. And I saw her pray more than I saw my grandfather pray by virtue of going to the Islamic School where she was the pre-K teacher. My grandmother was also up the earliest when I stayed with her, making everyone's breakfast, fixing lunch...

Even though she was still doing more traditional things around the house, she always seemed to me that she was the one running the household. Since, by that time, my grandfather was long retired because of disability from the plant and spent most of his days doing old-man things, like having coffee with the other old men at McDonald's for breakfast, really a shadow of the young man he was. As a young man, he had been working hard in the plant, sobering up, and, with his wife, bringing their 10 children into the Nation, seeking leadership within, encouraging his daughters to pursue higher education even when he met harsh disapproval for that...and bringing his family into Islam after Elijah Muhammad died, changing his name, learning Arabic, changing his life... And now, he was retired, relaxing, very happy to be in the company of his numerous grandchildren, his children and his loving wife.

But my grandmother never retired from her role as caregiver. Most of my childhood, my grandparents were raising 3-5 of my cousins at once. She essentially never was an empty nester, raising children from 1947 to 1998, when my last cousin living in the house graduated from high school. She was someone's mother for over 50 years, and in her 60s, when I knew her best, she was still going strong.

I wanted to be like my grandmother when I grew up. And what little girl wouldn't aspire to be like such a strong woman? But I also liked how she ran her house. It was Grandmother's house...she made the rules and enforced them. She demanded obedience and near-perfection in all of us. And while it was hard to live up to her standards sometimes, I really admired the way she made her home, and God, I wish the man I am to marry, whoever he is, insha'Allah, could have come to know my grandparents in their heyday, and understand how they influenced who I am.

On the other side of things, there was the media. Sitcoms influenced my conception of gender, for sure. In the late 80s and early 90s, Bill Cosby and the Cosby Show made popular this image of man, father as strict but gentle, but imperfect, sometimes bumbling, sometimes like one of the children himself, kept in line by the wife who regulated him sometimes with the same tone she used for the children, but disappointingly so. Enter Cliff and Clair Huxtable, my television parents.

People may ask, but my becoming a physician and wanting to deliver babies had nothing to do with Cliff Huxtable having been an obstetrician. I was probably more influenced by the show Rescue 911, but that's besides the point. Cliff and Clair really turned the tables in many ways, being the first educated, upper middle-class black family on prime-time television, but in interesting ways, they challenged gender roles as previously portrayed in many sitcoms. Cliff was a physician, but Clair was no June Cleaver, either. She was a quintessential mother, to be sure, but she was also an attorney, and a great one. And she was a mother of five children who managed to retain her figure and still have the hots for her husband of several years, keeping him satisfied in between the children's hijinks.

Come to think of it, I remember seeing Cliff cooking more than Clair...but maybe that's just because Cliff was more of a character about it. The children had their chores, so I don't remember her doing more of any sort of housework than Cliff did. Cliff definitely was a sensitive man and did a lot of things around the house, including cooking. It wasn't that the house was devoid of gender roles and, not at all. That was apparent in the ways they raised their children and the different expectations of when Theo dated and when the girls dated, for example.

But Cliff and Clair as a terms of career and their roles in the house, the only thing that differentiated them was that Clair carried and delivered the five children...though somehow, Cliff being an obstetrician seemed to even out this difference a little bit. And, Cliff was a man and Clair was a woman, as they identified. Their sensibilities reflected presumed gender roles that would be perpetuated in sitcoms for years to come...Cliff wanting to watch sports, Clair preferring nature shows. Cliff wanting to eat salty, fat-filled foods that were bad for him (he should know this, as a physician) and Clair steering him away and policing him.

But the both worked and they both had equal responsibilities in raising their children. You never get the feeling that Clair is doing all the work while Cliff comes home from a long day at the job and makes a cameo appearance.

The problem most critics point out in the Huxtables in terms of issues of race is that this is an unreal family, and how they live, independent of racism, is also unreal. The same can be said of the gender relations in the show. If Cliff and Clair were to have been high school sweethearts, and he's a few years older than her, and they got married soon after and had children while going to school, how did Clair really have time to pursue her JD and then practice law while having children every few years, and five at that, while her husband is a physician, doing residency and then away? You have to imagine that their family must have, at one time, looked very different as the couple was up and coming.

Hahaha, but it's not real! But whether it was real or not, I think the Huxtable's example,my parents' example, my grandparents' example taught me one thing...

There is not one way for one to make their household as a couple, and there is not one way for me, as a woman, to realize my gender. Although, because of my models, my primary aspiration became wifehood and motherhood, my first aspiration was to be a professional, like my mother was, like Clair Huxtable was. Clair showed me that I could be the strong mother I wanted to be while working, too, and my mother showed me how to adjust my role in the house as circumstances change.

By the time that I was brainstorming my friend's short story that would never come to be, I was driving my own car, content to do that with or without the presence of a man in my life. Marriage and family life was distant enough to not fully think about it, and my primary aspiration was to become a physician. At that time, I was between obstetrics and gynecology and pediatrics, which, though I didn't know it at the time, were female-dominated specialties. My friend had gone hardcore and entered the still male-dominated field of engineering.

And so we would be...

Friday, June 1, 2012

American Gender, Part II

As salaam alaikum,

It's interesting to think back to the plot of the story I planned to write for my friend and to think of what it reflected about my conceptions of gender at the time. In the story, as I note in the previous entry, Part I, two young women lead two very different lives and have different aspirations in a post-apocalyptic existence. The character A aspires to join a militia and triumph, bringing her nation into prominence, lording over other nations and ultimately surviving to reign over what will be the new world. My character, C, does not believe that war is the way and leads groups of primarily women and some of their children away from the battlefields, caring for the wounded and salvaging pieces of the old world, aspiring to make new civilization. In this post-apocalyptic world, neither A or C is regarded more or less woman than the other. They are both women who believe differently and have different strengths, and that manifests into their actions and aspirations.

For a moment when I was young, my parents upheld very traditional gender roles. My father was the breadwinner and the sole working adult in our household. He sustained the four of us on his salary as a chemical engineer. My mother was a stay-at-home mother and dropped off and picked up my brother and I from school, sometimes volunteering at our school by participating in the reading groups in our classroom. My mother did all of the cooking and cleaning, until I learned to help (which was pretty early on) and made sure my father's food was ready, hot when he wanted it after a long days' work...and his days were often really long, given his one-hour commute.

On the surface, my family setup would seem like a relic of earlier times, or someone else's culture. It helps that my father was a strong Nigerian man who very much believed in those roles--man as sustainer of the household, woman as upholder of the home. However, my family was not always structured that way, nor would it always be.

When I was born, my mother was the only one employed full-time. My father was still working out immigration work issues at the time. He wouldn't have his job until the month after I was born, and for a while my mother was the breadwinner, even while on paid maternity leave. My mother was a clinical social worker in neonatology at the local university hospital. She had worked for five years by the time I was born, and she loved her job. Prior to meeting my father, she didn't even imagine herself having children. That was not her aspiration. She aspired to be professional and though it was a challenging balance, she never imagined leaving her job for the sake of child rearing.

That is, until my brother came along.

My brother presented our young family with many challenges. He was diagnosed with autism a little bit after his second birthday, after months of suspicions. My mother distinctly remembers the devastation of that time. Coupled with troubling politics at her job, she made the decision to go from full-time to part-time social work, eventually leaving her job altogether when I was almost six years old. I had no idea all that was going on with my mother, of course, at that age. I was just happy when the babysitter no longer was the one dropping me off at kindergarten. It was my mommy now.

And that's how things were for a while. Having my mother at home during my school-age years I think was critically important to my development, even more than if she had been home with us when we were babies. We definitely bonded in this time. My mother returned to the working world when I was 13, working two jobs at once to help pay for the family's move to a new house in a new school district. She settled into a program funded in part by the intermediate school district and has been with that project to this day, which helps parents and educators of children with special needs. It's not the social work she once new, but she's gotten a chance to use some of her counseling skills.

She jokes that she's no longer the breadwinner, that she's the "appetizer winner," but she's very happy to make a small contribution to the family's budget. Other than that, not much has changed in terms of the roles in my parents' home. My father still comes home and expects to stretch out his feet and receive his hot food, but he cooks the rice and stew sometimes. He also washes and irons his own clothes lately, whereas that used to be all my mother...or me. I used to do the family laundry sometimes, when I lived at home.

There are some quirks about the gender roles I learned from my parents. For example, if my father is in the car with the four of us, he must be the one driving. He does not allow my mother or I to drive him anywhere unless he's under the influence of anesthesia and the doctor orders him not to operate heavy machinery.

So, as a three year old, when asked if I ever wanted to learn how to drive, I replied simply, "No, the daddy will drive." I assumed that this was just the way things were.

Then somehow, by 15, I had wised up and I clutched the keys of my driver's ed Ford Taurus in hand eagerly as it was my turn to drive on Huron River Drive. I scoffed at anyone who reminded me of my years old declaration and enthusiastically took the road.

So, what changed between my parents' house and my car? The main thing was that my parents weren't the only influence on my perception of gender. I will say that, because of my parents, I would insha'Allah be more comfortable with a marriage that demanded more traditional roles than maybe some of my peers would. For example, I would not be opposed to be the one primarily responsible for cleaning and cooking, cleaning and child rearing activities. However, I did learn from my parents' marriage that gender roles are not absolute or static. The roles of either member of the couple should change in accordance with life circumstance. My father's immigration status prevented him from working for a short time, so my mother sustained them. My mother needed to stay at home for the sake of my brother and I, and my father was the sole provider for the family. My mother returned to work and my father took on more household responsibilities. And the list could go on from there.

The other thing that influenced me was that my perception of gender were shaped by forces outside of my parents house. Influenced by everything from my grandparents' home to The Cosby Show, my American gender was not to be confined to the household sphere and transcended the examples set in my parents' house.