It’s been a while, so if you haven’t read part one or you just want a refresher, just click here.
“I’m a woman, phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman, that’s me.”
You might have noticed a sudden burst of media interest in Black American women. The NY Times, The Washington Post, CNN, they all want to solve the mystery. The world wonders at us it would seem. They ask, “How can those women, those ugly women, those manly women, those fat women, those inferior-by-all-standards-of-womanliness- women, how can they walk with such dignity, embrace themselves with such fierce love?” I’ll tell you. We are weavers. All African American women know how to weave. It’s a legacy from our earliest foremothers. We tenderly collect the shreds left after each assault on our humanity and weave together a new and stronger exterior to protect our vulnerable bodies, minds, hearts. Collect and weave, collect and weave, as shoulders tense, and backs ache and hands deform as years of other people’s hate and fear stick to our flesh, seep through pores and coagulate in the blood, so that what once ran smoothly can barely flow. It’s no wonder that stroke and heart disease are the #1 killers of African American women.
My ability to read the subtleties in each stakeholder’s demand, to please everyone, even myself, is a direct result of this inheritance as an African American woman. It’s not that I didn’t feel the weight of all these demands, that I didn’t feel the pain of marginalization. I was just determined to turn all that ugliness into something beautiful. Another lesson willed to me by my foremothers: if our lives are going to have meaning beyond each individual as a beast of burden, then we must to be more than the sum of our suffering.
“Now you understand
Just why my head’s not bowed.”
The sirat is thin and sharp. To keep from falling, you will need a pole to balance the weight of opposing forces. It’s a good thing then that I learned early to reconcile contradictory demands on my person. That’s an experience most women understand because to live as a woman in a patriarchal culture means to live a life of contradiction. I learned to be strong enough to endure sexism, while appearing soft enough to satisfy the demands of socially constructed femininity. I was privileged with beauty and parented to use that beauty to counter some of the disadvantages of racism, to ease the burdens of being a woman. But bargaining with patriarchy is like bargaining with the devil; in the end the price is always your soul.
Much of my 20s was spent pleasing the stakeholders. I married, had children, pursued higher education and volunteered for causes. I tried to establish a place for myself as a valuable member in the community of adult believers. But 9/11 happened and slowly the world that had treated my expressions of faith as a mild inconvenience or entertaining oddity began to treat my entire religion and its adherents as a threat. At the same time, I was awakening to a religious culture and system of jurisprudence in which women had rights in theory, but once problems arose and those rights were needed most, there were loopholes and obstacles, exceptions of every sort to ensure that women were only able to exercise those rights when granted permission by male authorities. And getting permission to use your God-given rights was hard. The culture, I found, couldn’t withstand even minor variations on the male-supremacist theme without responding as if Truth itself were threatened.
Raised to regard myself worthy, by virtue of my humanity, of all the rights and dignities afforded those more privileged than myself–wealthy, white, male, Christian etc– and being the recipient of years of Muslim propaganda that claimed to honor those beliefs, I began to question the gulf between the laws and the Muslim apologetics that enshrouded them.
By my late 20s, I’d come to realize that my years of efforts to find communion and reciprocity in the community of believers had produced little beyond the aforementioned “stellar reputation.”
That’s three paragraphs to express what can be said in three words: I was alone.
I kept walking the sirat, but the struggle was exacting a toll, body, mind and soul. It’s exhausting to never be able to fall apart, but there was nowhere to lay my burdens. When you are young, with few responsibilities beyond your own well being, you have a lot more resources to keep you going. As you get older and take on more commitments, the unfair burdens placed on women become clearer. It’s something I’ve noticed in a lot of women somewhere in the stretch between 27 and 33 the reality of sexism comes into focus. You start to become aware that the price you are paying to live is much higher than what men are paying. You start to understand just what inequality costs you personally. It irritates you. If you’re honest, it pisses you off. Then you have to start figuring out what to do about it.
I had to start figuring out what to do about it. But first I had to lighten the burden: I let myself fall apart. I didn’t really have a choice, my body forced the issue. The acupuncturists and doctor agreed, I’d stressed my body so much that it was depleted. If I didn’t start to care for myself, if I didn’t stop walking that thin bridge carrying so many burdens, I’d be looking at a future of serious illness.
I am in the process of rebuilding. I allow myself to make mistakes because the over-cautious life I’ve lived until now was impossible. On my birthday a few months ago, I got a manicure, and a pedicure, and a facial. I had a make-up consultation with a professional make-up artist. I found a chiropractor, got some glasses, some pretty dresses, some hiking shoes. For some women this is their normal. For me, after a decade of self-deprivation, it was a real act of self love, and a symbolic act of a new direction. I can’t be the daughter, mother, wife, friend, sister etc. I want to be if I’m depleted. I need to move my body in ways I find enjoyable, interact with people and ideas that challenge and motivate me, write regularly, and laugh with friends, cry when I feel moved. And I need to be able to say, “no.”
I haven’t figured out all I need to understand about my relationship to Islam. I am a Muslim, I know that much. I am a Shi’a, I know this too. I’m utilizing my divinely granted and constitutionally protected right to think critically and choose freely how to define and live those ideas. I say an unqualified “no” to my own inferiority, to sacrifice for individuals and communities that won’t reciprocate. I say yes to tawhid, to dignity, to empathy and mercy, to joy and justice, to love of God, love of self, love of creation.
“They try so much
But they can’t touch
My inner mystery.
When I try to show them
They say they still can’t see.”
*Quotes are from Maya Angelou’s poem Phenomenal Woman