At a very young age, I understood that I was different. Even as a preteen, I knew I was interested in women, as well as men. I was sexually curious, wanting to know what sexual pleasure felt like, what it tasted like. Through my desire, like a low hum in my belly, I sought to learn by reading erotica and anything that detailed sex, acquiring intel; the dirty virgin. Understanding that I wasn’t allowed to, religiously or culturally, explore this side of myself, I disguised in secrecy, and felt ashamed of what I felt to be a gaping, obvious truth; that I was a deeply sexual being.
I wasn’t sure why I wasn’t more normal, like the family friends I had who were all so delicate and so contained — wearing pink salwar kameezes that fit right (neither tight nor loose), having etiquette that I never had (nor cared to have), and willing to wait for marriage to be sexually plumed. In contrast, I was messy and spilled out at the edges. Yet, I had also spent much of my youth following a certain doctrine, the principles that I considered necessary: I actively prayed, fasted, and turned to the divine for guidance, always. I took particular solace in the concepts of surrendering, understanding that to be a Muslim, your iman (faith) would allow you to conceptualize such submission to Allah. When I was around God, I felt a deep hallowed catharsis.
But, at the age of 18, I felt abandoned by God. I felt punished for doing things like being in a relationship and loving someone — things that came naturally to me. So, I distanced myself from the faith of my upbringing. I resented Allah and felt confused by the meaning of “Islam.” I felt lost because I had created a fiction of what I deserved. I was dislocated and shattered in two, because I had sacrificed so much to be a good Muslim, at the expense of myself. I felt bitter and enraged when my life, as a young dedicated Muslim, didn’t come into magical fruition. The abandonment came as a spiritual shift, and as a loss of self. It came unannounced as an emptiness, as depression. It came when my partner left me, after mentally and emotionally abusing me for months. It came when he left me three days after I found out I was pregnant.
At that age, I didn’t understand that doing everything the proper way I was taught didn’t mean shit, that there was no justice to the universe, and that faith wasn’t a transaction. I didn’t understand that following a religious path wouldn’t resolve the bifurcation of my identity.
Yet, despite this disconnect, I still felt Allah’s sweet lingering, and the palpably peaceful presence of Islam in my life. I was calm at a mosque, in line for prayer, or when my head hit the carpeted fray of my prayer mat in prostration. I still cried when I heard the azaan, yearning for God’s connection. I still felt Muslim.
I felt I had to choose a side, inured as I was into thinking that I couldn’t be both parts of me. But it didn’t make sense to dismiss one side or the other: I held both identities and didn’t want to be publicly distilled into one element. I wanted agency over my body and to assign what that would mean for a Muslim woman — to embody both selves equally. I wanted to explore and immerse myself into who I was, without the caveat of shame, or the constant fear that I was betraying the ideal notion of a “good Muslim daughter. I wanted to accept these burdens I thought were given to me as punishment, and begin the journey of loving myself holistically, candidly.
There’s a great William H. Gass quote: “People who publicly complain of sin so often privately enjoy it.” I didn’t want to hide anymore.
So, I decided, then saved, to go on a spiritual journey ending in Mecca where I would perform Umrah. I wanted to relocate myself in God’s solar system; circumambulating the Kaaba, I would say Surah Fatiha in the city of the prophet. I would be in God’s orbit again. This time, I wanted to be honest about who I was to God, to expose my complexities, and be my imperfect self. I would ask for guidance, but no longer feign guilt.
I began my trip in Turkey, where I wanted to learn about the Haghia Sophia, with its Islamic calligraphy of "Allahu akbar" juxtaposed against the Byzantine paintings of Christ and his saints. I was in love with this split of two worlds — Istanbul’s mountainous mosques, contrasted against the bustle of its apparent secularism; the east meets west of the Bosphorus. I felt like a synecdoche of the city.
I stayed in Eyüp, a religious quarter of Istanbul, where I studied the streets and the language, eating red pepper dolmas and contemplating my relationship to Allah, and what that meant to me. For the first time in my life, I was defining Islam for myself. Without the cold glare of expectation, or the overbearing gossip of aunties, I could become Fariha, a Muslim of my own making.
A few weeks into my trip to Turkey, I visited a town called Alanya, right by the Mediterranean Sea, where I stayed with a family who knew only Turkish. Slowly, I learned phrases, the twang of the vowels and the pull of the consonants. I loved the phrase for "thank you" — teşekkür ederim — and would say it liberally throughout my sun-filled days because I was intensely grateful.
One day, on a whim, feeling self-actualized, I decided to wear blood red stockings and a dress, just above my knees. I walked out my room and my host, an elderly Turkish grandmother who wore a leopard print hijab that she tied behind the back of her head, muttered something in Turkish and gave me a defiant stare that said what I was wearing was inappropriate. And yet I was fully covered. Confused, I felt attacked. It reminded me so much of how my mother navigated my body, how she looked at it, how it made her uncomfortable. The outline of my femininity, my ass, whether she could see it or not, made her squirm.
When I started developing breasts, my mother would stare uncomfortably and berate me if I wore anything remotely tight, claiming that I was asking for the attention because I was a slut. It was always an accusation. She would tell me I was asking for violence, no matter what I was wearing or what I was doing. In her eyes, I understood, my body was only built for pleasure and had no purpose other than to draw the leers of sick men.
It was in that small house in Alanya, in a town near the Mediterranean Sea, in the oppressive heat of the sun, that I decided I would wear what I wanted to wear. I began to understand that the Islam I wanted to practice went deeper than rituals, dress, or even modesty. Instead, I wanted it to be about respect, love, and compassion — and most importantly, intention. In that version of Islam, there was no place for this elderly Turkish grandmother's judgment, my mother's judgement, or the judgment I turned on myself with dark seething anger for choosing to be the way I was, naturally, inherently. It took me years to understand and expand on what felt like such a small realization — I didn't have to change out of my red stockings.
I have spent a lifetime apologizing for who I am to my family and to the people I grew up with. There’s a deep shame submerged in me like a vestigial organ. When I go back to take care of my mother every year, I have a curfew, again, at 27. Dresses need to be long, and blouses need to be neck high. There’s an audit that occurs every time I leave the house; my mother watches me glumly. I don’t mention the names of my male friends, because according to my mother, I have none.
I do this to be respectful, but there’s a part of me that’s also audacious. I have tattoos, and my mother sees them every time I eat, because there’s an alien and a spaceship on the pinky and fourth finger of my right hand, and squiggles on the left. When Bengali family friends come to the house, I ask them to confront their own privilege and the strange (and racist) comfort they take in being a model minority, in their anti-blackness. When I was young, my mother would spit at me, shrieking if I spoke too directly to the uncles about politics. But these days, my intention is to be more than just a “good wife,” — it’s to be an example of self-actualization, to be the Muslim I want to see in this world.
It's always been jarring to watch these family friends prioritize acts of faith over interpretations of faith. I know people who listen to "Al-Baqarah" every day, the two-hour surah bouncing off of the walls with the vibrational pull of Qur'anic Arabic, yet they’ll be quick to gossip, greedy with suspicions of other people’s intentions, without pause. It reminds me of the red stockings incident and how the Muslim woman’s body is often policed both publicly, through the oppression she experiences on the streets, and in private, where she is constantly swatted and broken in two — by community, then family. Her existence, no matter where she resides, is claustrophobic.
I don’t have the answers. But, to me, Islam is much more magnanimous. Islam is about transcending those urges to judge, hurt, speculate, and, inevitably, compare yourself to others, as if anybody is the grand litmus test of what makes a good Muslim.
There is something holy about my protracted period of faithlessness. I lost my faith, only to find it again, with warm reverence. I realized that at 18, I had been really angry because I thought that if I did everything right, I would find redemption. That I would be saved. But I wasn’t. So, it’s been years of enforcing, reinforcing, remembering, and then remembering again what Islam means to me. I spent a lifetime feeling disconnected to a faith that always felt like mine, but because of my own naivety or somebody else’s, I landlocked myself, distancing from other’s interpretations, without sitting, contemplating, and factoring how Islam fit into my own life. By determining that now, I am kinder to myself and more generous with my foibles. But I’m also more forgiving of others. I focus little on how other Muslims practice their religiosity, and instead emphasize kindness. I give people more chances and never assume that I know a person’s history or baggage.
As Ramadan is here, I’ve been thinking more and more about my Muslim body and my Muslim soul, but also about what kind of legacy I want to leave as a Muslim woman. Kindness is a political act, but I think it’s a deeply religious one too. It’s the one that takes the most focus and requires activated purpose. It’s about unlearning how we interact with human beings and instead transcending to other dimensions of our hearts and minds. It’s been something that I’ve begun to meditate on as a ritual of faith, and it’s something that I began to comprehend on this journey, many years ago. But it's also a transformation that never ceases.
I was never given the love and acceptance I wanted from my family, community, or other Muslims. As a way to counteract that, I've made a point of offering that love to others as an act of faith. That to me, is how I can purify my spiritual self; kindness is the basis of my religious praxis. I’ve also forgiven myself for not being the Muslim I felt like I needed to be. I am the Muslim that I am. I am illuminated, radiating full consciousness. I am the sun and the moon, and I have the audacity to be both things at once. With this definition comes my own understanding that faith is what you make of it, and everybody has the right to it — red stockings, short dress, queer body, and all. ●