Why I StayedPosted: November 19, 2015
Before I wrote this post I had to convince myself that addressing my experience would be useful not only to me but to someone else. It took me more than a year to get over the shame. I did not talk about the things that went on in my relationship for many years even though I was (and am) surrounded by an incredibly supportive family and circles of strong and understanding feminist women. Maybe that was it… how could I, as a so-called feminist and strong woman, come forward with my story of emotional control?
I met my partner while in university; I was 18 at the time. Despite the fact that we were from different cultures, we clicked and managed to build a promising relationship. At the time, I was not Muslim, and I had been raised in a pretty liberal household. On the other hand, he had been raised as a conservative Muslim.
The cultural differences are something that people still ask me about because we were from radically different backgrounds. I would like to think that we were successful at negotiating all sorts of things. I quickly learned that pork was a no-no, and that alcohol, including baking vanilla, was something to avoid. After a few years, he became aware of the importance I placed on my language and my traditions, and he made an effort to study these cultural referents. While I was overly aware of his religion and culture from the very beginning, it took him a few years to understand that being in an inter-cultural and inter-religious relationship requires a lot of work. Part of me assumes that he expected me to be the one to compromise from the very beginning.
Yet, this process was not so much a negotiation as it was an imposition of personal preferences justified on cultural or religious grounds. So for instance, he had to accept that I did not want to be a hijabi because that was unacceptable within my cultural context (even after conversion), but I had to accept that he still expected me to dress modestly.
That expectation, “had to accept,” did not seem to be a big deal in the early years, but it became more and more important as time went by.
Being young, inexperienced and, generally speaking, stupidly in love, I consented to a bunch of things that would mark the relationship and would come back to haunt me later on. When I tell people that I met my partner so young, many tell me how wonderful it is to “grow up” with someone. The problem is that “growing up with someone” without actually being aware of what a relationship entails going forward and what consent really is, leads to codependent and unhealthy relationships. And that is what I ended up having many years later, a functional but codependent relationship, tainted by control.
It started simply, with the clothing issue. When we met I was in my short-skirt stage (Britney Spears in Baby one More Time type of thing). Within a few months, he had made it clear that he could not stand other men looking at me. Despite the fact that I was not Muslim, he expressed his dislike for anything considered immodest in his book. However, I consented to these “preferences” for the sake of being in love and thinking it was not a big deal.
But as much as the male gaze bothered him, gender mixing was irreconcilable. Although he was not what some would call a notably practicing Muslim, he was very strict on certain things. He never drank, he never smoked, and he never mingled with women. If he had female professors or classmates, he kept the interactions short and formal. He never shook hands with women, and avoided any kind of off-topic conversations with them. The expectation was that I would do the same. Coming from a background where I had mostly male friends, where I was expected to kiss people on the cheeks to greet them, where handshakes are the rule, and where gender mixing is extremely common, this was an impossible decision. But once more, I agreed. I convinced myself that I was respecting him by consenting to this “preference,” and that he was demonstrating his respect towards me in the same way. Even though I had never really been a jealous person, he persuaded me that I benefited from gender segregation by not having to worry about him being in touch with other women.
Two years after meeting him, I decided to convert. He never asked me to do so; in fact, I did not tell him until months later. Although he was uncomfortable with my conversion at the beginning, he quickly realized that our Muslim community would encourage me to learn the very behaviours that he was trying to inculcate in me. And after interacting with our Muslim community, I must say that my partner seemed quite liberal in comparison. There were instances where I would be lectured by the women in my mosque because my clothes were too bright or too tight or simply not “Islamic enough.” My partner would swing by, male privilege intact, and would use his privilege against these women. Funny thing, these women would not hear anything I had to say because as a convert I was deemed ignorant, but they instantly accepted his arguments.
After my conversion, my partner also started feeling more secure about pushing the gender segregation issue on me. What had once been a preference had now become a religious obligation. But in a way, institutional Islam and our Muslim community supported such a view. All the mosques in my city were segregated either by separate entrances or second floors and basements for women, and virtually no interaction between sheikhs or imams and the women in their congregations. In addition, many of the women in the mosque, predominantly converts, became my primary social circle. Many of these women were hijabis and niqabis who also happened to believe in gender segregation. Thus, I started moving around an environment where I was encouraged to adopt hijab and to refrain from interacting with men.
By my fourth year of university, I was almost a hijabi. I had cut out relationships with all the males in my life, except for close family members, and I had stopped participating in most co-ed activities. Somehow, I managed to hide this from my parents and friends because they probably would have thought that it was my partner’s fault. The reality is that it was bigger than that. Yes, my partner had “preferences,” but the Muslim community legitimized them religiously in a way that made my initial consent seem unchangeable.
Yet, while all this was happening, there were other processes in my life. I had started moving around feminist circles, as well. Hence, I had reconnected with the feminist lessons of my childhood and the most current literature through my studies. That was an entangled process because I was trying to see myself in the literature and in the movement as a woman of colour and as a Muslim, something that was not always easy.
The reality is that within feminist groups we tend to believe that we are above abuse and control, at least in our present day as feminists. Yes, we discuss these topics broadly, particularly in structural and institutional terms, but we rarely acknowledge abuse as part of our current experience. It is common to hear some privileged feminists telling others to leave their abusive or controlling partners regardless of their circumstances. Hence, I became ashamed of staying in the relationship while preaching women’s rights. I felt like a hypocrite.
By my fifth and last year of university I was resisting this control. The complex part of all this is that as much as I could blame my partner for all of this and accuse him of being a controlling jerk, he had undergone his own transformation over the years and he was, overall, a pretty nice guy. He was smart, caring, loving and incredibly supporting of some of my craziest projects. By the time I identified as an Islamic feminist and was into women leading prayer, he taught me how to lead prayer and prayed behind me. When I started exploring LGBTQ rights in Islam he helped me navigate orthodox theology to strengthen my research and publically supported me in a number of events. When I decided that I did not want to have kids, he agreed and respected me. When I started exploring other aspects of my identity he made it clear that he would always love me for my inquisitive mind and desire to grow, despite my internal struggles. And those are things that, as a woman of colour and of faith, are incredibly important and rare in a partner.
Nonetheless, neither his support nor his understanding of the things that were important to me loosened up the control he had over the people I interacted with or what I wore. In the last year of the relationship, this control was further endorsed by his own family, who thought that I was too Westernized to be trusted.
I should have known better, but my way of resisting became lying and hiding my activities from my partner. I had decided that gender segregation was not going to work for me, and that I would not abide by “his rules” anymore. Yet, I also knew that he would not change his mind over these issues and that even trying to do so would fuel conflict. This process was one of trial and error for me. Several times he caught me attending co-ed gatherings and events. He would go crazy and yell at me. I would apologize, promise to never do it again, and start meticulously studying where my plan had failed. A few months later, I could almost seamlessly participate in most activities I wanted to, without him knowing.
I knew that my actions were neither positive nor sustainable. I had considered leaving him a few times, but our lives were so intertwined and the codependency was so strong that we would be back together within a few days. I was never scared for my safety, but I knew that the relationship was unhealthy. However, I did not know how to leave or who to turn to without being judged.
The fact that I had put up with the control for so many years, and that I had initially consented to many of my partner’s actions made it all the more complicated. How could I tell my very liberal and feminist parents that I had been in a controlling relationship for years? I feared their disappointment, and I feared that they would blame the religion I had chosen for myself, even though cases like mine are prevalent in my own culture too. Further, how could I confess this to my friends, my feminist circle, who saw me as one of the strongest women they knew? How could I tell them that I was one of THOSE women who was living in an unhealthy relationship and could not get out of it? I was a #WhyIStayed without a #WhyILeft.
Things eventually ended… but not because I gathered the strength and courage to leave. A year and a half after everything fell apart, this is the first time I am putting this in writing and letting myself hear it out loud. My decision to share this has to do with the fact that now that I am finally talking about it, I realize how prevalent control and abuse are within feminist circles. Yet, we lack the spaces to come clean not only about past experiences, but also about our current circumstances. We can talk patriarchal structures, sexism and violence all we want, but if we cannot provide a safe space for these stories to be told without judgement and shame, we have accomplished very little.
ACE is a Muslim feminist and woman of colour exploring issues of love, dating and relationships among women of colour and faith.