My marriage of more than a decade brought me four children. This alone may seem a prize worth suffering under the roof of a man who oppressed and degraded me until my dignity was driven into the ground. During our marriage, I tried to create a family portrait filled with intricate detail until I could see it hanging in front of me, adding an aesthetic sense of beauty to my life, like valuable belongings and collectibles.
I was like a Sufi—symbols and objects of status meant nothing to me. I was looking only for what could give my life greater meaning. I was trying to find answers without a religious or ideological fight. I wanted an escape from the reality that I had to confront when I began questioning absolutes. In order not to fall into the hollowness of atheism, I tried to form a foundation of belief. Still, sometimes in choosing a more simplified and spiritual path, we are actually trying to escape the problems in our lives and avoid self-examination.
True change requires that we break from the associations and ideas formed by our parents and religion and culture, and stand naked again, as blank slates. But often, we simply replace one set of ideas with another. We fix what we can on the surface, pretending we are fixing from within, when in reality, we are nowhere close to what lies inside. True change requires reconstruction. But in order to reconstruct, we must first demolish, and demolition requires moving, shaking, cleaning, digging, burying, and bringing in new components to replace what existed before.
At times, I looked at the family portrait I had created so carefully—all the details I had included with extreme caution and care—and I saw only how false it was. I looked around to see my husband and his family—his mother, his sister, his father, his brother. I saw myself in my mother-in-law; I saw my daughter in his sister and my son in his brother.
I saw my husband in the face of his father, and myself I saw in the decayed body of his mother. I was deeply afraid, as I could suddenly see my future with absolute clarity. There it was, walking ahead of me, without any falsehood or mystery, like a tape fast-forwarding. How could I attempt to create a portrait of my family in such an environment? I suddenly understood my mother-in-law. I understood her panic and madness, and I understood it would be only a matter of time before they would become my own. My husband, he too was bound to became like his father. I would have to accept such a bitter reality, driven by the same old admonition: “You are no better than anyone else. Everyone lives this way.” But I was living a life filled with false decorations. My entire life had been about adaptation and adjustment. I didn’t want to see my children forced into this same reality.
I was secretly raising my children to pursue dreams hidden from them by the patriarchy. I wanted them to dream of a reality in which a human can become who he truly is. I wanted my children to hear a single message from me: Become who you want to become. I didn’t want to expose them to the conflicting message my parents gave me—become who you are, so long as who you are is what we want you to be. I wanted my actions to match my words. How could I tell my daughter not to allow a man to hit her when she had seen her mother beaten by a man? How could I raise her to be strong—to safeguard her rights and her worthiness as a female—when she had seen her mother in the corner of the room writhing from a severe beating the night before? How could I raise my son to respect his wife when he lived in a house where his mother was beaten and later prepared the hookah for his father, who waited on the sofa, praising his own virility, while his mother was stricken with shame and weakness? How could I teach my children to live a life built on virtue and manner when vice decorated the throne of the patriarch we obeyed and bowed before?
I lost any desire to pursue my own pleasures, and I decided to devote my life completely to my children, believing they represented the dream and the hope. I continued to live as though I were that same modern, moderate Muslim woman, but in truth I had submitted myself completely to God. I became a Sufi without Sufism, the believer without a veil. I studied the lessons of Amro Khalid, who taught patience and endurance, and Tareq Suwaidan, and other virtuous religious men I followed along the path to God, to help me endure the pain of life. I went forward with blind obedience and righteousness. I lived according to the stricture that the woman is meant to worship the husband as though he is a God on earth. I fulfilled all of my commitments in that regard, living in total compliance, climbing higher and higher towards God. I told myself: All of your good deeds will bring you rewards in the afterlife. Don’t give up on the mercy of God. I even began to feel a perverse delight in my husband’s tyranny, and I would laugh to myself, saying: Here, you have done another good deed through submission. Be happy.
And one good deed after another piled up until my good deeds filled the skies, and I told myself: God Himself has grown tired of all these good deeds. There are others out there who need the heavens.
My mind filled with a collage of images—the heavens built on my good deeds, opposite my humiliation and compliance—and the idea that these images would one day form my children’s future.
How could I pretend to raise the next generation with better values when I could not be a good example myself? How could I aspire to raise a son who was different from his father when he absorbed what was happening in the house and saw his mother enduring it all, screaming, crying, and defeated? How could my daughters grow to be any stronger than me? How would they protect themselves in the future after seeing their mother humiliated, choosing to be silent and meek?
I imagined climbing out of myself and shattering the family portrait I had been drawing with such care and accuracy for more than ten years. I shattered it with all my power, and I removed my children from it forever.
I realized the unknown was more beautiful for its ambiguity and darkness, for its distance from the reality I had submitted to.
I gathered myself and my children and left behind a life built on glory and money and social status. I withdrew.
That was the first time I made a decision not to turn away, but to face the reality of my life.