“You need a religion,” my mother said. “It’ll give you direction, guidance.” And about five years ago, when she told me this, she was right. I became a Muslim, though I kept this information from her for a long time because I knew she wouldn’t understand.
Then two years ago, we sat in her car in the driveway of my house one day. She said again, “You need religion.” And I was tired of hiding who I was. I said, “As a matter of fact, I have a religion. I’m a Muslim, and I’ve been one for two years now.”
Silence in the car. Seconds ticked by like hours. Then through gritted teeth she said, “I forbid you to tell a soul about this. You will humiliate our family. Do you understand me? No one.” Islam says I must respect my mother’s wishes, so I agreed.
A few weeks later, she dropped by my house on Friday as we were getting ready to leave for Jummah prayers at the masjid. Hijab in my hand, I said, “We’re leaving for prayer.” She said, “You’re involved in a cult.” I said, “It’s not a cult. Would you like to go with us and see for yourself?” She agreed. So I took my mother to the mosque. Everyone was respectful and polite to her.
On our way back home, she said “I felt like a second-class citizen in there. Is that was you want? To be treated like a second-class citizen?” Out of respect for my mother, I only replied, “I’m sorry that you felt that way. Islam isn’t about that. If you had questions, you could have asked someone there.” But I knew she’d never ask.
The next time she brought up my religion, she said, “I spoke to a minister the other day about this, and she said that Muslim women just want to be controlled by men. Is this true?” I took a deep breath.
“No, that is not true at all. I wish you had asked me, or any Muslim woman about this, and not gone to a Methodist Minister, who obviously is misinformed.” She replied, “If you say so.” No more discussion.
I attended a family gathering on July 4th, and being that it was still Ramadan, I declined to eat until sundown. My mother demanded that I eat earlier, as not to “draw attention to myself.” I said, “But no one knows about this but me. What difference does it make if I eat sooner or not?” She reminded me that I was not to bring up “that subject”, so I carried around a piece of bread so no one would ask questions.
One Friday as we were leaving for prayer, we stopped for gas, when we saw a friend of the family. I was wearing hijab, and asked him not to mention this to my parents. He said, “Oh no, I won’t say a thing. I respect people’s religions.” What I didn’t know was that he went straight to my father and told everything.
That night I got a phone call. “I told you not to cover your head in this town. Any of our friends could see you.” Again, I simply said, “Yes,” as a respectful daughter should.
Christmas-time rolled around, and my children and I were expected at a holiday gathering. My youngest daughter, age 9, asked to say a few words, though it wasn’t actually a prayer. It was just a saying she’d seen in a magazine and thought it appropriate for the occasion. No one seemed to be paying attention to her words, but she said them anyway:
“Bless the food before us, the family beside us, and the love between us,” she said humbly. A nice thing to say in a family where there was supposed to be unconditional love.
What I didn’t know – couldn’t have known – was that practically the whole small town already knew. The seeds of gossip had already been planted. Behind my back, like a malignant evil, word had begun to spread through my family about my faith. And none of it was good.
Hateful words reached their way to me, and worse, to my children.
“You’re a terrorist,” they said. What revert to Islam hasn’t been called that at least once?
“You’re in Al-Qaeda,” I heard from a family member.
“You’re dating Arabs,” I heard, and though I pointed out that “Muslims don’t date,” the words had already fallen from her mouth, ignorant and hurtful. I was told I was going to Hell.
At a family funeral, there was an apparent mix-up about a piece of music to be played, and afterward, I was accused of “having Muslim music” inserted into said funeral service. I was hurt beyond measure to find out that everyone blamed me, yet didn’t say anything to me about it, instead making me the scapegoat again.
While I was just trying to raise my children, and live my own life, I heard that a few family members had refused to attend any future family get-togethers if my children and I were in attendance.
I was asked why men join ISIS (I don’t know). They said that my children were “brainwashed puppets.” (Is this any way to treat children?) I was accused of being a polygamist (even though I’m a single mother?). They said I “talked funny now.” (because I can speak some Urdu?). They said we ate “strange food” (because I can make cholle?) They said there were “terrorists in my home” (because a kind group of Muslim men from the masjid helped us move furniture into our new home, simply because they knew we needed help?).
And through it all, I remained the respectful daughter, and abided by my mother’s wishes to “keep my religion to myself.” Each time I had to hide my hijab in my purse, only allowed to put it on when I left town to go to prayer, it hurt worse. To be shunned and gossiped about behind my back, when everyone was too afraid to just simply ASK me about Islam, about the beautiful religion I was so happy to be a part of.
The final break came last November. “We are a Christian family,” they said. “Only Christians are welcome here. Do you understand?” I did. I respected my family’s wishes and haven’t been back to my old hometown since.
My children and I are family, just the way we’ve always been. There is unconditional love here, the way it should be. And we have a family in Islam, that I am reminded of each and every time I bow down in prayer to God, who has been there for us when no one else has.
What a terrible way to live your life, in fear. So many people in this country are afraid of what they don’t know.
Last month I was in a restaurant and saw this written on a piece of paper taped to the bathroom mirror. It didn’t specifically address Islam but the powerful words resonated inside me:
“Now is not the time for you to lie down and cry for our nation. Now is not the time for you to give up. Now is not the time to isolate yourself from everyone. We need you. If we want to survive and help others, we’ve got to stay together. We have work to do in real life (globally and locally), not just on Twitter. Put your words into action. Volunteer. Showing the next generation what it means to be truly American means teaching them how to be kind and strong. It’s how we prevent something like this from happening again. Most importantly, don’t give in to negativity. Every time you think about quitting, they win. Do you think they should win? No? Good. United we stand – let’s get to work.”
Beautiful words to live by. Now go hug a family member, in love.