In the Shadows of Men: Threat of Divorce


It was as if my divorce threatened to break apart all the marriages in society. Suddenly, I became a threat to every man and woman, and a threat to my own family—both my married and unmarried sisters. I brought disgrace when I asked for divorce.

In the midst of the aggression that came at me from all directions, my father’s was the only kind, calm voice, as he asked me, “What is it that you want?”

“I want a man who carries piety towards the God in me,” I said. “If there is a store that sells piety for such a man, please take me there.”

All I wanted and still want is this piety.

Until that moment, I had been a strong believer in marriage. Everything I knew in life revolved around marriage. I walked out of my father’s house and the abiding shade he provided, and into my husband’s house and his heavy shadow. I had even come to believe that the sadness of life gave off its own beautiful color. I genuinely believed the verse that says, “And among His Signs is this, that He created for you mates from among yourselves, that ye may dwell in tranquility with them, and He has put love and mercy between your hearts: verily in that are Signs for those who reflect.” For the entire thirteen years of our marriage, I tried to live with my husband, believing I was created from his rib. Until he broke my rib and distorted my body, creating a scar that could not be erased, even now, many years later. His blow struck my heart. But I needed it, perhaps, to wake me from my deep, submissive slumber.

In those days, I was living life like an addict. My sedatives were religious books and advisory opinions—fatwa. For a time, I hated Amro Khalid, and yet I felt he was my painkiller. But he was never truly medicine. Everything he said was but an invitation to keep the man elevated above the woman. The woman was obligated to be obedient, patient, and enduring, and God would reward her later.

As much as I needed a man, I needed religion. In that moment, when I began living without a man who defined the boundaries of my life, I was not able to remove religion from my existence. I held to it even more tightly. I read more texts—I set aside the writings of Amro Khalid and held tightly to The Revival of Religious Sciences (al-Ghazali) and In the Shade of the Qur’an (Sayyid Qutb).

I dove into the deliverance and doom of al-Ghazali and came to rest on his customs and worship. And when I wanted something more in-depth, I would go to In the Shade of the Qur’an and consider the imprisonment and isolation of Sayyid Qutb. I didn’t understand most of what I was reading, but I continued on, as if I were part of a recital gathering of the kuttab in a previous age.

It wasn’t important whether I understood. Reading was enough to make me virtuous. I was sure there were many things my limited brain could not completely comprehend. After all, I was “inferior,” so this was to be expected. God did not create anything out of mere emptiness. What was written was beyond my comprehension, beyond what I, a limited person with limited knowledge of religious sciences and Shari’ah philosophy, could possibly grasp. Yet I continued to mutter my recitals and readings.

I don’t know how coincidental it all was. Was it just my curiosity for the books already there in my father-in-law’s library? Were they all I could reach? I wanted to constantly escape into the books, and I would not dare borrow a book from a library or even enter a library because there was not a single step I took without my husband’s permission. An obedient wife is a good wife in the eyes of God. I truly hoped to add more good deeds to my name by being obedient in the face of his oppression.

Divorce was never something that entered my mind. I didn’t know anything about life, except that I was living it, and my husband was confident I wasn’t capable of walking out. He would meet my goodness with harshness and mutiny and arrogance until, eventually, I became his private property. I became his property, and yet he never paid a penny for me. I came free, and yet he could not have afforded to pay half of my worth. It was like a slap. Each time I tried to elevate him closer to my world, he would force me to descend into his.

The difference in our status was not about competency or education or social level, nor was it a question of wealth. There was something else defining us that was more difficult to measure. It’s true I was better than him in all of the above respects, but that wasn’t the issue. The real difference was in the emptiness and inferiority a human being can endure, a self-imposed inferiority that can’t be filled with money or certificates or houses or buildings, a sense of inferiority that continued to increase until it created a friction between us that, to me, sounded like an annoying squeak. There was no resolution to his feelings of inferiority, no matter how I tried to ease them, no matter how I emptied what I had within me in order to reach out to him. I almost became that emptiness residing within him, until its rasping became too much and deafened me, and I ran away.

He tried to seduce me with jewelry. I had already sold what I owned so he could build a business, which could only be successful with my help. I would save penny after penny, collect them, and give him a pound of gold.

At one point, while I was still living in the illusion of our life together, I insisted that he buy me a wristwatch I liked. I wanted it for my birthday, an event he didn’t care much about. Later I insisted on the watch for our wedding anniversary. I was constantly fighting and testing him. The watch itself wasn’t important. What mattered was his willingness to make me happy and fulfill my wishes. In the early years of our marriage, when he had very little money, he used to tell me he wished to buy me gifts, but he worried my taste was too expensive, so he avoided buying me anything. Maybe he was right. But I would have been just as genuinely fulfilled if he picked for me a flower from the street. The intention was more important to me than the deed.

My insistence on the watch was crazy and irresponsible; it was more than we could afford at the time. Still, I didn’t give up until he took me to buy it. In that instant, I felt irresponsible and ridiculous, and I said I was satisfied with a different watch. Maybe that was the moment he realized I had a price.

A few months after I asked for a divorce, he came to me with a seductive offer, saying, “If you come back, I will buy you that Cartier watch set you liked so much.” I was tempted for less than a moment, but I enjoyed flirting with the idea. I knew that accepting the offer would mean joining the convoy of women who exchanged their happiness and dignity for a piece of jewelry. How easy it could have been to become that wife whose fingers are adorned with diamond rings and whose neck glows with gold chains and jewels, each alight with betrayal and disaster. The price would be there on my body, the glowing jewels a sign of treason that I would have chosen to ignore.



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