More on Hijab and Other Things We’re Not Supposed to Talk About

Several years ago when my personal crisis of faith began and I knew that I could no longer pretend to fit into the neat and tidy box of devout, conservative Muslim that I’d packed myself into, I’d scour the internet looking for people who had felt the same as me. I didn’t need spiritual answers. I didn’t want to be told that this sheikh says blah blah blah and you have to obey because that’s just the way it is. I knew what my beliefs were and what they weren’t. I needed practical, been there, done that, and this is how I did it advice. I wanted to know that I wasn’t alone in the way I felt. I wanted to know that the way I felt was valid.

This post isn’t one where I want to discuss the issue of the nature of hijab. I don’t want to battle about which school of thought believes it to be mandatory and to which degree. I don’t want to know your thoughts about those who don’t believe the headscarf to be necessary. I don’t want warnings of hellfire and damnation or reminders about sacrificing our comfort in this life for the hope of the hereafter. There are plenty of other places on the internet to debate those things (like this post, for example). This post is about something different.

I want to talk to you about what it feels like to be abandoned as a Muslim, specifically as a convert, and specifically by other Muslims. But first, a little background info.

When people ask me about my journey to and through Islam, the question “How did your family take it?” usually arises. People want to know if my parents were supportive, if they threatened to disown me, or if it caused tensions in our relationship. Thankfully, with exception to minor issues that were remedied with time, education, and unconditional love, I can proudly answer that question and say that my relationship with my parents is stronger than ever and even when they don’t understand my faith, they support my choice and my right to practice it. But many converts are not so lucky, so they look to the Muslim community around them for support and guidance.

When I was considering converting to Islam, although I didn’t lose my family, I also searched for Muslims to supplement that family. My parents didn’t understand my beliefs or why I was considering embracing something so foreign. My friends thought the idea of things like fasting and hijab were strange and ridiculous. How silly that I could no longer relax and have a drink with friends. And what?! No more BACON? I needed a community of fellow Muslims behind me. I needed that common ground. I needed people to look up to and learn from. I needed understanding. And of course, as an eager, young potential convert, I received everything I was looking for.

The community in my hometown was small and people were thrilled to meet the new girl. I was invited to homes for meals and family celebrations, I was given gifts, I was allowed to ask questions during religious lectures I attended, and I never once in that two years of searching and studying that led up to my conversion felt pressured or forced into accepting the religion. Once I became an official convert, however, things changed. Support faded and the community seemed to be no longer interested in the shiny new toy that was me. I was expected to conform. Quickly and without hesitation.

I admit that I always found it hard to fit into my local community after I recognized them for what they were. Other than offering salaams to other hijabi women when I ran into them, I kept my distance. And thanks to the newly blossoming social media movement during that time, I did find a great community of friends online. I was excited to “meet” women from all over the country who were exactly like me: young, outspoken women who had embraced Islam and who were loud and proud of their beliefs and identities. It felt good to have that support. 

I met one of those friends in a group for women who were considering hijab. I was 22 at the time and I thought that since the headscarf was a mandatory part of my identity as a Muslim woman, that’s what I was supposed to do. The love and support and encouragement flowed freely. Mashallah’s and alhamdulillah’s were showered upon me and I was congratulated for standing up for what I believed in and for what I believed was the right thing to do. I adopted hijab without a second thought and began to proudly defend my choice to do so to anyone who asked, even The Mr., who at the time thought it was a terrible idea (spoiler alert…he was right).

Time moves on and people grow in different directions. Many of these women are still my friends today. Some have married and divorced. Some have become more conservative or fiercely liberal. Some have left Islam altogether with whispers of “She wasn’t really a Muslim afterall” following them, which makes me wonder about the nature of the whispers that have included my name. The friend who I met in that group, after more than 8 years of friendship, became hostile and arrogant once our views on religion no longer complimented each other’s, and I ended the friendship without a second thought.

I still identify as a Muslim, but it’s obvious to anyone who knows me that my beliefs are of a progressive nature, which is obviously not the most popular movement with Muslims these days. People would rather defend the necessity of suicide bombing when no other weapons are available than the right for a woman to dress as she pleases and marry who she chooses.

I stand by my choice to remove the headscarf, but I can’t help but feel abandoned by my Muslim friends a lot of the time. The response of personal, long term friends to my choice has been mostly crickets, ya’ll. Those same friends who Mashallah’d and Alhamdullillah’d 8 years ago are silent. And I have to be honest and say that even though I’m doing what’s right for me, it hurts like hell.

There’s an obvious lack of support for Muslims who choose to take a non-traditional path. Why is that? If we as Muslims are willing to stand up and fight for a woman’s right to choose hijab and not be discriminated for it, why aren’t we also there defending a woman’s right to remove it and not be a social outcast for doing so? Where is the freedom of religion that Western Muslims hold so dear to their hearts when someone uses that freedom to practice their religion in a way that they don’t agree with? I don’t get it.

My journey to and through Islam isn’t something that is easy for me to talk about. I worry about what people will think of me now more than I ever worried what they would think when I considered converting. It’s hard to be outspoken about things that are supposed to be swept under the rug. But it needs to be talked about, because I know I’m not alone. I know that other women have faced similar struggles and I know that women end up on my blog because of it.

Hijab was the hardest thing to undo, especially as a convert. I’d spent so many years fiercely defending my choice to practice Islam and wear a headscarf that the thought of admitting to myself and my family and friends that I no longer wanted to wear it was horrifying to say the least. I wish I could tell you how many times I typed “I don’t want to wear hijab anymore” into the Google search bar, looking for the support and advice I so badly needed.

So if you’re one of those women who are searching for answers, I want you to know that even though you may feel abandoned, you’re not alone. Here’s the been there, done that, here’s how I did it advice that you’re looking for.

I can’t tell you if you should wear hijab, not wear hijab, cover your face, not cover your face, marry that man, allow that man to take a second wife, divorce that man, accept Islam, leave Islam, come out of the closet or not, move to Saudi or not, or go against your family’s wishes. But I can tell you that no matter what your choice is, I’m one person who will support it and be your friend through it.

People will abandon you and sometimes those people might even be your friends or family, but despite that abandonment, in whatever way you can, in whatever circumstances you’re in, find a way to be authentically you. Be just as proud to go against the grain as you would be do go with it. Don’t just march to the beat of your own drum, dance to that shit, too. You’ll never regret being true to yourself, I promise.

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I don’t like driving anyway

“I don’t like driving anyway.”–90% of girls dating Saudis trying to make themselves ok with potentially living in KSA

I wish I’d somehow kept track of how many times I’ve heard this gem from the women who write to me.

During my first week in Saudi back in 2007, one of my sisters in law had taken me out with her driver to buy a bed for my daughter and I was telling her how odd it was for me to be riding in the back seat of a car while this strange man drove us around. She said something that still rings in my ears today because it affects my life every single day. “You can’t move without a man here.”

Everyone knows that women are not allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia, but no one really understands what that means unless they’ve been a woman in Saudi Arabia. It goes so much deeper than not being able to sit behind the wheel.

There are women here who get along just fine with the driving restriction. Most of those women are upper-middle class–and above–Saudis who have been born and raised in this environment, so they are used to it (or, of course, those women lucky enough to have married a wealthy Saudi…I’m guessing if you’re engaged to a Saudi student on a government scholarship, he will not fall into this category). It is easy to call up your driver, ask him to take you to the mall, and then ask him to stay parked there (in the scorching heat) for several hours while you shop. If you’re really lucky (wealthy) you don’t even have to share your driver with any other female family members, so you’ll never be late, you’ll never have to schedule your time, and you’ll never have to cancel your plans, doctor’s appointments, or play dates due to lack of transportation.

For the majority of women living here, however, it’s a different story. Not everyone can afford to buy a car, pay to sponsor a driver, and pay his salary. For these women, they’re either sharing a driver with several other people, borrowing and begging for other people’s drivers, relying on shady taxi drivers who may or may not try to rip you off or hit on you (interesting fact: most Saudi husbands will not allow their non Saudi wives to use taxis), or you’re waiting on your husband or other male relative to take you where you need to go. Oftentimes this means that you just simply must stay put.

Staying put means if you run out of milk today and your husband doesn’t get your message to stop and pick some up on the way home, you’re just out. It means that those plans you made with your kids to go to the park this weekend are now canceled. It means that although the grocery store run you need to make would only take 5 minutes, you might have to wait a couple days. It means calling your friend who you’ve already canceled on twice to cancel your plans  yet again. It means counting floor tiles and memorizing the patterns of the cracks in your ceilings because you’ve been stuck in the house for days on end and that’s all you have left to do.

Not being allowed to drive also means that in case of an emergency, you are at the mercy of whoever will answer their phone and is not too busy to come and get you. What will you do when your husband is out of town on business, your kid is sick, and you have to wait for a ride to get to the hospital? What will you do when you get a call from your children’s school saying your daughter broke her arm and you need to come and get her, but baba is in a business meeting and no other ride can be found? What do you tell your friend when she’s just had a baby and you can’t get a ride to come and see her in the hospital?

And if you are one of those women who are lucky enough to have a driver at your disposal, this is a friendly reminder that you have absolutely no say over the actual ability of this man to safely get you from point A to point B. You do not know before he arrives whether or not he is crazy, a pedophile, a pervert, if he possesses an actual driving license, or if he has ever actually operated a motor vehicle (my mother in law’s last driver had never driven a car, revealed to me when I let him take me to the grocery store). You don’t know if he will be able to pass the Saudi driving test (happened to a friend…two years on and her driver still doesn’t have a license), if he will understand English or Arabic or neither (yes, that really happened to me), if he will have road rage, if he will make it a habit of swerving in and out of lanes, if he will get you into crashes, or if he will talk to his friends about you and your personal business (also happened to me).

“I don’t like to drive” is an entirely different category than “I’m not allowed to drive,” my friends. Please put this justification to rest. Not allowed means that your freedom of movement is entirely up to other people. Not allowed means you can be arrested if you do. Not allowed means that the independence and privacy you so loved back in your home country is gone, because even if you are lucky enough to be able to afford a driver, he will know your every move, he will know your comings and your goings, you will always need to be careful about what you say in front of him, and you can never again turn on the radio and sing to your favorite songs.

Oh my goodness, it feels kind of good to rant that all out! I haven’t done it for a while here on the blog.

I’m sure that for those of you who do believe that not being allowed to drive in Saudi is no big deal, this all sounds absolutely ridiculous, but it seriously affects the quality of your life when a freedom you’ve had for your entire adult life is taken away from you.

You don’t like to drive? Good for you. But please, please don’t let yourself be fooled into believing that your dislike for driving will make depending on others here any easier.

Untold Stories: A Single Saudi Woman

N and I met not long after I moved to Riyadh again in 2011. I’d never had a Saudi female friend before, and frankly she blew my preconceived notions about Saudi women out of the water within minutes of meeting her. She was vibrant, beautiful, and opinionated, and proved to me that Saudi women have so much to offer this world, even when society prevents them from doing so. 

N’s case is at times a sad one. She’s incredibly talented, driven, and hopeful, so to see her feel let down and short-changed by her own culture and country is difficult for me as her friend. She’s full of love and life and energy that I envy at times. Even on her most defeated days, she’s someone who has always encouraged me to see the good in the bad and has always ensured me that things will work out in the end…for both of us.

I admit that it’s hard to imagine myself in her shoes as a woman approaching 30, still being held back by what my parents decide I can or cannot do, having very little say over how I can live my life and who I choose to be in it. But my friendship with N has given me a better understanding of a group of women that most of the world knows nothing about, and for that I am thankful.

The following post is a conversation between N and I, which she gave me permission to record and use for this post. I thank N for being brave enough to share part of her story with me and my readers in hopes that others might get a better look at what life is like for one particular Saudi woman and many more like her.

This is by no means an indication of how all Saudi women are living, and neither N or I wish to present her story as a generalization. 

 

M: Can you tell me a little about your life and what it’s like to be a Saudi woman?

N: Long story short, we were three daughters, and when we started growing up my dad became more and more protective. We lived in the States for a year when I was in second grade, but then we came back here. Everything was fine until we became teenagers and then my dad got overprotective. It was hard because we were not allowed to go to our friends. They were allowed to come to us in our house, but we couldn’t go to them because my dad likes to know what’s going on. My dad was also in the military, which made him even more worried. He would hear many bad stories and he would get worried.

When we were older and entered college, I didn’t get to enter the major that I wanted. He said the university was too big, that it didn’t have a good name, and that there were bad people inside, like lesbians. He was also afraid since it is behind closed doors and he cannot see it. I wanted to major in English, but to him it’s an accessory, not a need. I was strong in English at the time and wanted to major in it because I loved it. I knew what I wanted since I was a teenager. I also loved anything to do with art or fashion.

After I graduated from college, I told my dad I wanted to study fashion. This was in 2008, now it is 2014, so imagine all these years I’ve been fighting and fighting until he eventually told me I cannot do anything with fashion or art because it’s  waste of time and not that important. We had the hugest fight ever and I told him he’s not seeing what I want, only wanting me to see what he wants.

He doesn’t like how I think. Still, my parents have a hard time because I’m more open minded and more outgoing. When we travel to the US or Europe my dad is a completely different person. He doesn’t care what I do. But here, he thinks that because everyone in society is looking at you and everything is closed or hidden, it’s not like the US or Europe. But I don’t see that. I see it as the same. It depends on the person. I don’t think society is the issue here, but parents make society the issue. It’s not, it’s the way you choose to do things, right? Do things and don’t care about others. If it’s right, you shouldn’t care about what others think. Unfortunately, we don’t have that mentality yet here. Here you’re always concerned with others, making sure no one talks to or about the girls in the family. Boys–they get free passes every time. But girls don’t. It doesn’t make any sense.

In my fourth year of college my parents had some issues in their marriage. They had a huge fight and my dad was acting crazy. Things happened that won’t ever be fixed no matter what he says or does…it’s broken. We have this saying in Arabic: A girl is like glass. You can’t totally fix her once she’s broken. You can repair her, but she will never be the same. He damaged everyone.

At that time my eldest sister had gotten married and moved out, and my mom wasn’t living in the house. I was the eldest, so I was in charge. I would cry every morning. I get it sometimes why my parents are scared. I was wise and mature before my age. I wasn’t a teenager. I didn’t go through that phase.

Now we’re still fighting about jobs. I wanted to do my Master’s but he said if  it’s art or fashion, I can forget it. He said I can do MBA, but I still didn’t do it, because I don’t like it. I already did my college for him, because that’s what he wanted and I was always the good kid.

He thinks it’s all about money. Why are my sisters and I going out to work if he already has money. But we don’t choose to work because of money. We are going out to work because we want to evolve, we want to be better human beings, we want to know how to handle people. You cannot sit at home and learn everything.

M: Do you think it’s fair that you’re almost 30 and that your father can still decide what you’re allowed to study or not? Do you think that should be changed?

N: Before I even say anything or talk to him about anything, I will put myself  in his shoes and try to understand his point of view as a parent. But I don’t think it’s fair for him to decide my career, my job, my everything. It’s not fair. I get it if he mentions how he feels, but this is my education. Yes, he wants what is best for me, but he’s forgetting that he’s lived his life. He had his experiences. I will take his advice, but I shouldn’t have to do what he wants me to do. It’s funny when parents say “this is your plan, you’re going to this college,” and the baby is still in the womb.

M: Talk to me about your life now. What are some things you wish you could change?

N: I wish I could change my dad.

I wish I had a degree in interior design or fashion, or something like that. I’d like to be my own boss.

Sometimes I feel bad because I feel like my sister had better chances than I did. Before, my father would say that no daughter of his would ever be a doctor or dentist, or anything in a hospital environment. Even working on a computer in a hospital. But then my dad got sick, so when my younger sister decided to go to dental school, he said ok. My sister also went to private school when I had to go to government school.

I wish I could change my life. I wish I could just live in an apartment alone or with a roommate and see my parents every other day. I just don’t want to be in my life because my parents are too protective.

M: Do you want to talk about marriage or relationships?

N: My dad doesn’t force us. Other families sometimes force the girls to marry, maybe when she’s 16 or 17 they pressure her into marriage. When I was in school there was a girl who was 15 and her parents were planning a wedding. It’s a joke. You’re a parent and you’re married and you know how hard it is, so how can you let your daughter do it? When they get married their life completely changes.

M: What about you, personally. What do you want to do?

N: What, like, do I want to get married and stuff? Hell no.

M: (Laughter) Why not?

N: First of all, I don’t need another man besides my dad to tell me “don’t do this.” I don’t want him to talk  about how I eat or dress or walk or the way I go out. I just don’t want anyone to tell me no or give me any restrictions. I’ve had enough of that with my dad. I don’t want to bring kids into the world when I didn’t live my life. They will grow up and have their own lives and I’ll be stuck living the same way because I didn’t get to do what I wanted.

M: Most people who don’t live here aren’t familiar with how things work. They don’t know what it’s like for an single adult woman who doesn’t to get married, but also doesn’t want to be alone. Let’s talk about the dating world.

N: It’s not out in the open. It will never be out in the open.

M: It’s common though, right? Do your single friends date?

N: Yeah, it’s common. My friends have already either had or lost the love of their lives, so they don’t want to do that all over again. But it’s more common I think in the younger girls. They’re more open minded. Boys and girls are also open to being just friends now. It’s more normal. But then, sometimes you fall in love with a friend.

You cannot have, for example, a boyfriend, and just be together for years. You won’t find that man who is committed without any commitment. They have to be engaged, or they won’t take anything seriously.

When it comes to marriage, many people are getting divorced. They don’t understand marriage and the responsibilities. They think marriage is something fun for traveling, but it’s hard when you live with someone you don’t know. You don’t know anything about each other and it leads to major fights, and since they’re not mature enough it leads to divorce.

M: Is there anything else you want to talk about or tell the world?

N: I’m thankful for my mom. If she wasn’t who she is I don’t know what I’d become. She makes everything seem better even when it’s not.

Also, the feelings I have are complicated. Sometimes when I seem ok, I’m really not. I bottle up my feelings because I don’t want to make her feel worse, because I know she feels the same way as me. But I pretend everything is ok.

My dad grows older and becomes softer, so hopefully in upcoming years my life will get better and better.

I don’t want to be married, ever. I’ve seen marriages fall apart. Our men are made of stone. They take it as a weakness to say something nice. They don’t get it.

N: I think this has been a long interview. It’s the longest interview you’ve done, ins’t it?

M: Yes, for sure, but it’s been fun!

N: It’s because I’ve blabbered on. Just don’t make it sound horrible when someone else reads it. When you ask Westerners about Saudi Arabia they will think about camels and the desert. They think we’re living in tents and don’t have cars…we have skyscrapers for God’s sake! Don’t let them think that we’re in Guantanamo or something.

I hope you’ve all enjoyed getting a look inside the mind of one of my dear Saudi friends. Please feel free to leave your polite and respectful thoughts in the comments section and I’ll be sure she reads them.

I want to go home

 

I can’t guarantee that you’ll get to go home.

I’m not sure if it’s going to happen.

Don’t get your hopes up, it probably won’t happen.

There’s nothing I look forward to more living in Saudi Arabia than the act of getting on a plane and leaving it behind, but these have been the kind of answers I’ve received any time I bring up the annual trip home to the States this summer. I’ve been hinting at it for months, even mentioning that my mother booked summer camps for my daughter, hoping for the answers to turn out in my favor, but to no avail.

Summer marks the beginning of my calendar. I get out of here, I shed the weight that living here places on my shoulders, I can be me, I can breathe for a little while.  It’s my new year…when everything starts all over again and I can restart my stuck in Saudi countdown.

I knew the possibility of going home was slim because money is tight (or nonexistent, honestly), so I really tried to not get my hopes up. We just forked over rent for a new apartment after all. I’ve even tried to be honest with friends and family, telling them it probably won’t happen and to not look forward to it. The answer I was given this week was a definite no, unless I could figure out a way to pay for it. It was a little bit like being punched in the stomach. I still don’t want to believe that I might be stuck here for the whole summer…and an unknown amount of time to come.

Every trip home since I’ve been here, I worry that maybe it will be the last time I see a friend, or the last time I get to hear my grandmother’s stories, or that one of my parents will get sick, or that another friend will miscarry a baby and I won’t be there to hold her while she cries, or that I’ll miss another milestone, or that I’ll grow further apart and feel increasingly isolated from family members, or that I’ll miss another wedding or another funeral or another birth, that it might be the last time I get to hug my parents. It’s killer.

I’ve been crying about it for a few days, especially since I officially broke the news to my parents, but today I decided to swallow my pride and do something about it.

I’ve started a fund raising page to help cover the costs of a trip home for my daughter and I. If you or anyone you know are interested in helping me make it happen, I’d greatly appreciate your support. Please visit the page, donate what you can…literally every cent will help to make it happen, and share with your friends and family members.

For those of you who do choose to help, I am humbly grateful for your choice to do so. I don’t know how I will repay you except to pay it forward and to help others when and how I can, particularly through this blog and through charity work.

Here’s the link:  http://www.gofundme.com/99vu8k

 

 

I’m Having a Baby

Well, sort of. I had to get your attention somehow!

A couple of weeks ago over dinner with Nicole from The Same Rainbow’s End, while comparing notes about our advice-giving adventures, I half jokingly suggested that we start an advice column dedicated specifically to Saudi-non Saudi relationships. Nicole took me seriously and since then we’ve each almost died of excitement several times.

Today we are happy to introduce our new baby, yamajnouna.com!

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This blog is a joint effort to provide a community for non-Saudis involved in relationships with Saudis to get advice, share their experiences, and get an idea of what life is like in Saudi Arabia.

We will have several exciting features on Ya Majnouna including advice, perspectives, experiences, roundtable discussions, and eventually podcasts. It’s an interactive blog, so we hope our readers will help to contribute great material as well! Check out the submissions section of the blog to learn more about the features and how you can get involved.

Please help to welcome our baby to the world by checking out our first post, subscribing to future posts, and liking the Facebook page.

See you there!

Tasting Freedom

This week I said goodbye to my big, bright, beautiful house that I’ve called home for the past two years and moved into a smaller and more manageable apartment.

I love so many things about it. I love the small and cozy feel and the fact that cleaning it takes me a fraction of the amount of time it took to clean the big house. I love that it only has what I need, no excess. One living room instead of three, two bathrooms instead of five, a kitchen, and two bedrooms.

Did you read that? Two bedrooms. One for me and one for my daughter. That’s it. No one else can decide they want to move in or keep their things around.

Since living here,  I’ve come to believe that freedom is relative. It is as much a state of mind as a state of being. I may never have the freedoms I left behind in the states, but I now have the freedom that comes with peace of mind I’ve gained from in a dwelling that isn’t big enough to let anyone else into.

So I’ve taken that freedom by the tail and I’ve been a little adventurous, partly because I promised my mother I would be but mainly because it’s been nearly three years of feeling like a child dependent on way too many people. I’ve taken many taxis and walked to the mall and a few restaurants. I’ve met new readers and new friends and I’ve realized that I was the one holding myself back the whole time. So no more of that.

Freedom, no matter how trivial it seems,  is priceless, my friends.

But I Love Him

“But I love him.”

This is a phrase I read daily in emails from women and girls involved in dead end relationships with Saudi guys.

It used to be my own answer to the question of why I wouldn’t just end my marriage when I knew it wasn’t ever going to be what I needed it to be.

There’s a problem with the belief that just because we love someone deeply, we should push ourselves so far past the limit on what is beneficial or acceptable in a relationship that when that relationship ends we don’t even know who we are anymore.

I don’t trust him, but I love him. I would be much happier without him, but I love him. He says he can’t tell his family about me and that we can never get married so our relationship will never go anywhere, but I love him.

Ladies, I’ve told many of you before that love does NOT equal possession. Loving someone does not mean that they are yours, that you cannot live a happy life without them, that they cannot (or do not deserve) to move on and find someone else to love, or that you must be in a relationship with them. It also does not mean that you should let go of yourself for the sake of holding onto someone who, despite your love for him, is no longer good for you. You’ve got love confused with attachment, and attachment isn’t always healthy.

Stop hanging onto men and relationships that are no longer serving their purpose in your life. Learn to let go. Learn that letting go doesn’t mean that the love you feel for someone is over. Learn to love without attachment or expectation. Learn that loving without expectation doesn’t mean that you should love without standards or boundaries.

Value yourselves. LOVE YOURSELVES. Love yourselves more than any man who comes into your life.