Gifts of Imperfection: Susan’s story

Part 1: Becoming Muslim, wife and mother

      After 20 years of being Muslim and wearing the hijab, Susan was done. She had had enough of trying to reach a standard of Muslimness that she could never attain. By taking off her external and internal identity as a Muslim, she was taking off years of hardship that she felt began when she embraced the faith.
 
      In 1988, after the sudden death of her mother, Susan went to study abroad in Egypt for one semester. She fell in love with the culture and discovered the religion of Islam. Growing up in the Dallas/Fort Worth area in Texas, she’d never met or talked to a Muslim and only heard about them from the news or saw them around town or college. She was given a copy of the translation of the Qur’an as a parting gift from one of her friends and started reading it fervently. Still grieving the death of her mother, she felt tranquility in her heart for the first time and was drawn to this religion of peace.
 
     When she arrived back in the USA, she felt different and it showed. Even though she had just turned 21, she had already attended plenty of college parties where alcohol was readily available. After coming back, she said no to the invitations from her friends to attend these parties, something they all found odd. She also started dressing differently, always in long sleeves even when the temperatures were hovering in the 90s and switching from pants to skirts. When she started covering her head with a turban style wrap, everyone thought she had lost her mind. When she went to pick up a prescription, the pharmacy technician, Amir, greeted her with “salaamu alaykum”. Without thinking, she responded with “wa alykum salaam” and realized what had happened – she had embraced Islam.
 
      She told Amir that she wasn’t Muslim, at least not officially, and asked him how she could go about doing so. He was more than happy to help her; he found her intriguing and attractive, a White woman who had entered “his” religion of her own will. He gave her his number and told her to call him any time, which she did. He told her which mosque to go to, to ask for Imam Maged and to tell him she wanted to convert. Amir also told her that she should ask the Imam to act as her Wali, so that he could represent her if and when she wanted to get married. She did as he told her that very day, not wanting to delay making it official.
 
      Amir and Susan talked almost every day. He asked her if she was doing her prayers and on time and asked how her family and friends were dealing with the changes. She loved having someone to talk to about Islam and someone who cared about her and her new religion. Becoming Muslim had been a great and life altering experience for her: when she had abandoned her “old life”, she lost friends along with it. She felt she wanted to compensate for what she had done before Islam and pretended it didn’t bother her that others didn’t stick around. She felt envious and embarrassed around the Muslims she met at the mosque, who were raised as Muslims, had Muslim family and friends, and knew so much while she felt she knew nothing.
 

Most of us have heard of shame, but maybe not in the context of how it affects our behaviors and relationships. It affects how we live, love, how we treat one another and even how we worship God. “Shame is basically the fear of being unlovable…[It] is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging” (Brown, 39).

 
      Susan wanted to learn everything she could about Islam and implement everything she learned. She did so much and so fast – she loved music but heard it was haram so she threw away all her tapes. Instead, she started listening to Qur’an tapes, started wearing hijab and even stopped eating meat unless it was “halal”. She had a list of very lofty goals: memorize as much Qur’an as she could, get rid of all her tight and colorful clothes and start wearing plain abayas, pray all her obligatory prayers with full concentration, fast Mondays and Thursdays to name a few. Amir admired and encouraged this enthusiasm and it even inspired him to want to do more, since he himself wasn’t that practicing. He advised her that the best way for her to reach her full potential as a Muslim was to marry, that being around her non-Muslim friends and family would only stunt her growth and bring her down. She wasn’t thinking about marriage but did feel she needed more support than just a phone call or a visit to the mosque. She felt like a lost soul alone on an island and it was getting harder and harder every day to put on a smile and act like it didn’t bother her that her friends stopped calling or that her family would make comments. Maybe this was the answer to the prayers she had been making, asking Allah to help her feel comfortable and confident as a Muslim and keep her steadfast.
In “The Gifts of Imperfection”, Brene Brown discusses how shame gets in the way of love and belonging, experiences that are vital for thriving, what we are “hardwired” for. She says “Belonging is the innate human desire to be part of something larger than us. Because this yearning is so primal, we often try to acquire it by fitting in and by seeking approval, which are not only hollow substitutes for belonging, but often barriers to it. Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance” (Brene Brown, Gifts of Imperfection, 26).
       She spoke with Imam Maged and he agreed that marriage, especially for someone like her who had no Muslim family, would be good for her practice of her deen. As a religious leader, she trusted him to tell her what was best for her practice of Islam. She didn’t know it then, but Amir had approached the Imam, a friend of his, and told him that he was interested in Susan as a wife. Amir was 29 and looking to get married for a while. He had been a pharmacist in Egypt and moved to the US 10 years prior. He had gotten his green card and worked as a technician while he tried to get his pharmacy license, but he had not yet found a woman to marry. He liked Susan and hoped she liked him, although part of him wondered how someone like her could like someone like him, that she could potentially marry any man she wished. Still, he hoped she would say yes and if she did, he would try to be a good husband to her.
 
      After speaking with Imam Maged, Susan agreed to marry Amir. Although she had dated a few men here and there before converting, she never had a serious boyfriend and marriage was not something she thought about – she wanted to finish school and get a job before settling down. After the idea was presented to her, she was nervous at first and then grew more excited at the prospect of marrying Amir. She felt it would give her a sense belonging to the Muslim community through someone who was born into the religion. She valued her independence but was told that Islam valued family and home life. She wanted to be a “good Muslim” and felt she needed to let go of certain parts of herself to do that, to fit in. She didn’t know whether Amir would actually want to marry her. After all, she wasn’t raised Muslim, she didn’t have a Muslim family and had lived a non-Muslim life up until a few months ago. She didn’t love Amir, but she liked him enough that she felt she could grow to love him. He seemed like a good Muslim man from whom she could learn about Islam and practice it without care or concern about anyone interfering or commenting.
 
      Susan’s family wasn’t antagonistic about her conversion, but they believed it to be a phase and made comments that bothered her. When she told them about her engagement to a man she had only met a few months ago, they were shocked and told her she was crazy. She wanted their blessing; even if they didn’t understand, her conviction in her newfound faith assured her that she was making the right decision. She agreed to postpone the wedding until after graduation, but they had the nikaah right away. She had a small wedding just a few months shy of her 22nd birthday without any real conversations about their expectations of marriage.
 
      Susan was told that a Muslim woman must be obedient to Allah, the prophet Muhammed, parents and then her husband, in that order. She wanted to be a good Muslim and wife, so whatever Amir asked for, she did. She didn’t know what a normal marriage was supposed to be, let alone a Muslim marriage. Her only models of marriage came from movies, books and her parents who had divorced when she was 10. She didn’t know whether public displays of affection, or any showing of fondness, was allowed or whether it was normal for husband and wife to barely talk. The only things she and Amir talked about was about how much money she spent or what she would cook for dinner. She had never had any experience with budgeting or cooking, but if it was important to Amir and made him happy, she did it. She apologized profusely every time she made a mistake and pledged to correct it.
 
When we don’t feel we’re good enough, making mistakes makes us feel shame instead of guilt. The problem isn’t our behavior but us. “In order to deal with shame, some of us move away by withdrawing, hiding, silencing ourselves, and keeping secrets. Some of us moved toward by seeking to appease and please. And some of us move against by trying to gain power over others, by being aggressive, and by using shame to fight shame. All of these strategies move us away from our story. Shame is about fear, blame, and disconnection. Story is about worthiness and embracing the imperfections that bring us courage, compassion, and connection. If we want to live fully without the constant fear of not being good enough, we have to own our story. We also have to respond to shame in a way that doesn’t exacerbate our shame. (46) For Susan, the more she felt like a failure, the harder she tried to be perfect.
 
This is because “shame is the birthplace of perfectionism…” (Brown, 56-57). Perfectionism is shame-based. “It isn’t the same thing as striving to be your best. [It] is the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgment, and shame. It’s a shield. Perfectionism is, at its core, about trying to earn approval and acceptance….. Most perfectionists were raised being praised for achievement and performance [and eventually] we adopt this dangerous and debilitating belief system: I am what I accomplish and how well I accomplish it. Please. Perform. Perfect. Healthy striving is self focused – how can I improve? Perfectionism is other focused – what will they think? (56)
 
      For Amir, his marriage to Susan brought out all his insecurities. He felt as if he had won the “marriage lottery”, that others would praise and even envy him for having married a White Muslim woman. He couldn’t believe his fortune while simultaneously fearing that she would soon learn the truth about him. Now that they were living together, she would see all his flaws and faults. She probably thought him a religious man who was knowledgeable about Islam. In truth, he only knew a few ahadith and hadn’t memorized more than 10 surahs. He felt she would soon attract the attention of other men and would deem him undesirable compared to them. She would find him boring or annoying and dislike him more each day or be tired of living with a man who didn’t have a high paying job; whatever the reason she would eventually leave him.
 
      He turned his fear and shame into anger and rage. He was afraid Susan would reject him intimately so he told her that the angels would curse her if she refused. Of course, it made him feel worse knowing she was only being with him out of obligation instead of desire, which made the shame and anger grow. She was obedient, that much was clear. He could see how much she wanted to be a good wife to him, but he didn’t know if that would last if he let his guard down, if she saw him for who he really was.          
 People believe that shame can be used to keep people in line and correct bad behaviors but “…shame is much more likely to lead to destructive and hurtful behaviors than it is to be the solution. [It] is human nature to want to feel worthy of love and belonging. When we experience shame, we feel disconnected and desperate for worthiness. Full of shame or the fear of shame, we are more likely to engage in self-destructive behaviors and to attack or shame others. In fact, shame is related to violence, aggression, depression, addiction, eating disorders and bullying” (41-42).
 
       Amir didn’t want to use birth control, telling Susan it was due to a narration from the Prophet about having many children. In reality, he felt the more children they had, the less likely she would leave him. As a result, Susan got pregnant two months after they got married. Now that she was pregnant, he believed she wouldn’t leave him, at least not as easily. A divorced Muslim woman would have a harder time remarrying, but Susan may be an exception due to her race. As a divorced single mother, however, she would have a harder time marrying again.
 
      Susan was nervous and excited about being a mother. She thought maybe the baby would make things better between her and Amir. There was no trace of the friendship that they had before marriage and she even felt she was treated worse than a stranger. Admittedly, she was hoping for at least some of the romance she had seen in movies or TV and tried to be as good and kind to him to get him to show her more care and affection. Now with a child on the way, maybe he would be loving to the mother of his child. She wouldn’t pursue any jobs outside the house before or after the children were born because, as she was told, they were her primary duty. She wanted to be the best mom she could be and saw that most other Muslim women stayed home with their children.
 
      Before she was 30, she had four children: her first born, Abdur-Rahman; 2 years later she had her daughter Mariam; Malik who was born 18 months after Mariam; two and a half years after him, Ayesha, whose pregnancy surprised her since she had secretly started taking birth control. She felt so tired and exhausted all the time, overwhelmed with taking care of them all herself and having so many in such a short time. Amir either ignored, yelled at, or, when he was in a good mood, played with the children. When it came to disciplining them, however, that all rested on her shoulder. Whenever they acted up, she would tell them to behave and then lose her temper. She implored her husband to do something but he said it was not his job and that the mother needs to handle it. Frustrated and burnt out, she would sometimes lose her temper with her children, yelling and saying things she was later ashamed of. She felt like the worst mother ever and grieved the loss of her mother even more. Now she was failing as a Muslim wife and mother.
 
“The less we talk about shame, the one more we have it. Shame needs three things to grow out of control in our lives: secrecy, silence, and judgment. When something shaming happens and we keep it locked up, it festers and grows. It consumes us.” (Brown, 40)

Shame is like emotional najasa. Just like physical najasa: a) everyone has it, b) no one wants to deal with it or talk about it and c) the more of it we have and the more we hold it in, the worse we feel. We all have it, whether we care to admit it or not. Even if we do know we have it, we don’t want to admit it; we feel “icky” just thinking about it. This is what shame does to our self-worth: it makes us feel scared to reveal our true selves which we deem to be gross, unwanted, unworthy of being in the company of others, especially to people we think are too good to have someone “like us” in their presence.

Defining Arabic words:

  • Hijab: Head covering/Islamic dress prescribed for Muslim women
  • Qur’an: Holy book of the Muslim faith
  • Salaamu alaykum: Greeting that means “peace be upon you”, standard for Muslims to use when they see one another
  • Imam: Religious leader, usually designated to a specific mosque or congregation
  • Wali: Representative, usually a father or other male relative
  • Halal: Permissible
  • Abaya: Cloak or overcoat type of garment that is commonly worn by Muslim women
  • Deen: Religion or path
  • Najasa:  impurity
  • Surahs: “Chapters” that the Qur’an is divided into, 114 total

     

    Explanations:

    Angels cursing a woman: Narration by the Prophet that is misinterpreted/used for abusive purposes

    Having lots of children:Recommendation by the Prophet, not a command

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