Most days, I cannot cry

Most days, I cannot cry.
Most days, I am too busy presenting The Strong Face, the Tough Face, The I Can Handle It Face, The You Don’t Mess With Me Face,
The Lean On Me Face, The Go On Throw It At Me Face, The I Am Your Therapist Face.
Most days, I am too busy over-being to simply be.
Most days, I’ve forgotten how to be.

It’s like how most weekends, I slip quickly into what I’m expected to do for others.
The smiles on other faces make me think:
Yes, another day!
I’ve done my job, I’ve done what makes “me” happy.
Who is this me.
And who is that me that is trapped in a box, trapped under the secret floorboards, hammering, screaming,
Let Me OUT! I need to get OUT!
Until one day, that other me stops screaming, her fists fall by her side, and she murmurs, barely audible:
I’ll do anything, please, just let me lie here quietly, under the floorboards, and I’ll be okay.

So, most days, I just keep going, propelled by the electrical power of expectations, congratulations, Facebook Comments, Likes, Twitter hearts, eyes seeking me out, emails saying thank you for doing your job, pay stubs, homework sheets, frenetic cartoons on the TV that shout BAD MOMMA loud and clear.

Most days, I barely look in the mirror.
And then I put my head down on the prayer-rug and say:
I’m so tired I can barely feel my hurt.

And I raise my head and the cat’s eyes are upon me.
The cat is reclining in front of the prayer-rug, staring at me.
He’s not hungry. He’s just watching me.
Does he know how I feel? Is he sad for me? Does he hear my heart flagging?
Does he want to absorb my tears in his fur?
Does he want to lick my tears up with his sandpaper tongue?
Does he want to creep up to me and softly put his paws on my chest and crouch there, purring, resting his paws, claws drawn in, on my heart, turning his face, eyes half-open, watching me?
Does he know how I feel?
Do You know how I feel?
Do You feel it?
Do You care? Do You cry with me? Do You feel the hurt, the weariness?

And then, that day, I can let the tears loose. I can hear her under the floorboards.
Like in a crime thriller, I can rap on the floorboards, hear them hollow, and rip them out, splinters in my flesh, so she can crawl out, and sob:
Wait. What does she say? I can barely hear her now.


-February 21st, 2016. If you’re wondering if this is a poem, and if so, why it’s so bad, it’s not a poem. Or whatever.

Gender activism: within the system or without?

wadudAt times, I hear some Muslim women scholars sniff at activism. I hear people say that the activists who educate young women in conservative seminaries and teach them wifely obedience are superior to such scholarly activists who rock the boat, jettison baggage, and demand new gendered frameworks. I hear people say that such activists could have continued to be highly regarded scholars in “mainstream” religious circles, and that it was their own fault that they demanded too much, made too many big statements, and demanded – for instance – prayer leadership, the right to divorce, and so on.

This is an age-old debate of course: work within the system and slowly accomplish some goals, impact a large number of stakeholders, and slowly achieve change? Or demand more, and turn large numbers of mainstream community members against yourself – and potentially get them to dig in their heels even further?

I disagree with such claims – that working within the status quo is the only true path to reform. With all respect to warriors on the path, quiet, patient work within the system is one of the paths. We need all our warriors on this path. Scholar-activists like Amina Wadud have blazed a path for all of us. Whether you agree with her or disagree, she helped raise everyone’s expectations. For my part, whether you find your spiritual home within the status quo or not, if you work toward egalitarian ideals, we are all sisters & brothers.

But even if I love your community service, be warned, some of us wage war against the status quo.


Maybe it was Philip Pullman’s The Amber Spyglass – death as a presence that accompanies you watchfully from birth onward – or just an increasing sense of impending age. Yesterday, after the ‘isha prayer, it occurred to me that, as I turn 48, I’m practically 50. I’ve never been especially quantitatively inclined, so maybe I’ve been slow on the uptake. But it hits me like a lightning bolt.  Statistically, I have fewer years left ahead of me than behind me.

This isn’t to say that death can’t happen anytime, of course. In infancy, in your teens, your blossoming 20s, your proud 30s, your steely 40s, your flagging 50s, and so on. It’s just that the statistics that gave comfort when I was in my 20’s, no longer do so. People died in old age. I wasn’t old. I now approach middle age. I’m going to be old, and approach death steadily.

It feels like one of those epiphanies pot-heads talk about. Dude, I’m gonna die. People have died for centuries. What’s the big deal? No splash when I depart (except of course for immediate family and some friends). We’ve all seen the tears, the Facebook condolences, that last a few minutes – if you’re lucky – and then life literally goes on. Not that that’s the point either, in the manner of a self-indulgent Bollywood movie character who reflects on his own insignificance while staring out to sea. The point is, all this, all this noise, this is clutter.

It’s time to cut down on the noise and the clutter, and really prepare to meet my Friend, to give more freely of myself, because so much less time is left to give.

Flashbacks and reflections on immigrant grief

Several of my friends have traveled to Pakistan this winter, and I have not. I have missed the bus. As someone who left behind most of who I was in the homeland, I struggle with the pieces that are left with me, and I find myself on hands and knees, searching frantically for missing shards and bits and pieces. And then there is mortality, mine and that of others.

When Sadhana died this week, taking with her the movies my mother used to watch; the songs my mother used to sing – in her beautiful, untrained yet melodious voice – all through my childhood, I felt again like I had been robbed.

This week, I am at my cousin’s place, and I am overcome by grief. Maybe I feel loved enough to stop and nurse the long festering wounds. I remember how when I first arrived in this country, found community with Muslim Americans, and became enmeshed in these new communities. Yet there is a web of love I left behind, the quality of which has not been replaced, and cannot ever be.

بےدردی بالما تجھ کو میرا من یاد کرتا ہے
O heartless beloved, my heart remembers you always

I keep trying to remind myself that having clean water, a perpetual supply of electricity, no real emotional demands (except those I struggle to nurture myself), freedom from many of the old social gendered expectations (those have been replaced by others though) – all of these gifts make the new life in the new homeland worth the loss of the old.

Today my mamujan (my cousin’s father) is coming to stay, and I am delighted as well as overwhelmed by the past that threatens to tear me in two, reminding me of all the promises I have broken, the homeland I abandoned, the waiting hearts I have disappointed:

پلکوں کے جھولے سے سپنوں کی ڈوری
پیار نے باندھی جو تو نے وہ توڑی
Love fastened a hammock of dreams to our eyelashes
And you broke it

Maybe mamujan and I will sit and watch the old songs he used to sing, and my mother (his sister) used to sing.

رہیں نہ رہیں ہم  مہکا کرینگے
بن کے کلی، بن کے صبا
باغ وفا میں
Whether I live on or not, forever I will be fragrant 
like a bud, like the morning breeze 
in the garden of faithful love

Ammi doesn’t sing so much anymore. I think that the Islamicizing in Pakistan as well as age have both taken some of the artistic joy she took in the singing. Far away from her, where I have missed the transitions she has undergone through the years, and she has missed mine – I struggle to find those moments again.

لگ جا گلے کہ پھر یہ حسیں رات ہو نہ ہو
Fall into my arms, for who knows, this beautiful night may never return again 

I try to find her again, I try to find me, I try to find that old Pakistan that I left behind – and all of those things are gone, lost forever.

رہتے تھے کبھی جن کے دل میں
ہم جان سے بھی پیاروں کی طرح
بیٹھے ہیں انہی کے کوچے میں
ہم آج گنہگاروں کی طرح
The beloved whose heart I lived in like one more beloved than life itself
I sit today in his street like a sinful outcast

I refuse to be one of those immigrants who go back and lambast the changed homeland for not being the old one. How can I, when in the 1980s and 1990s, in my over-enthusiastic religious youth, I myself lambasted Pakistan for not being something else? We all keep trying to re-make it in some other image.

Still, wherever I go, whatever new paths I create, I take my yesterdays with me, moldy, abandoned, overgrown. My yesterdays call to me; sometimes they hammer on my door and demand I open up at the most inopportune moments, summoning me to them.

اجی روٹھ کر اب کہاں جایے گا
جہاں جایے گا
ہمیں پایے گا
Where will you go, darling, turning away from me in a huff
No matter, wherever you go
you will find me there

And more than anything else, there is a wellspring of love; painful, grieving love, that I can only access through my yesterdays, my immigrant past.

اک پیار کا نغمہ ہے
موجوں کی روانی ہے
زندگی اور کچھ بھی نہیں
تیری میری کہانی ہے

It is a song of love, the flow of waves
life is nothing but the love story of you and I

It is with a powerful intense angry desire that I wish for stability in our homelands. I wish external interference in our homelands would quit, so that we can rebuild, and become such homes that the transnational among us can revisit and love again. For immigration as a narrative of triumph and renewal is only part of the story; immigration is in equal parts a story of loss, of populations who were robbed of their roots and yesterdays; who had to reconstruct lives out of puzzle pieces that didn’t always fit easily.

او جانے والے دامن چھڑا کے
مشکل ہے جینا تجھ کو بھلا کے

O you who broke away from me
it is difficult to forget you, and then to live on

The familiar strange

About 20 years ago, I left Pakistan and went to the UK for higher education. I did not know that I was permanently transitioning to immigrant status.

20 years prior to that I arrived in Pakistan for the first time, as a 6-year old. I have now spent more time in the Western hemisphere than I have in Pakistan.

Today, while praying namaz at the Shirley Gate Mosque, it occurred to me how much my life has changed over the years. As I walked back to my friend’s house, leaning on my husband’s shoulder, I thought how exotic this experience would have been for me when I was in Pakistan. Socializing with Tunisian and half-Turkish Muslims, White converts, making dhikr with them, praying together, and being eyed by first-generation Pakistani women at the mosque. How many cultural iterations I have been through, I can barely keep track.

As a young bookworm, I was fascinated by anything unfamiliar – Chinese Pakistanis, Anglo-Pakistani friends, international students, Sudanese medical students. Now I go back to Pakistan and I am fascinated by the everyday pieties and the cultural practices that were once normal, mundane, boring.

Anthropologists speak of rendering the familiar everyday things strange, and of rendering strange unfamilar cultures familiar. This has happened to me in my own lifetime.

I wonder what lies ahead.

Distilling Muslim identity into the headscarf

I said I was done with the subject, but then I realized I wasn’t. So here goes:

First: Culturally, non-Muslim Western discourse has a problem with distilling Muslim identity and difference into the one symbol of the headscarf.

This is why you’ll find a black person, a white woman with a nose stud, a brown person, and a hijabi laughing together in brochures for liberal arts colleges. Bam. Diversity: covered.

Sometimes Muslims buy into this distillation. We get excited when we see a hijabi stuck in a TV show. Yay, Muslim representation! But really, this thrusts the entire burden of Muslim identity, symbolism, and representation onto women’s head-covers. This is not fair. It is also – as we have seen in recent hate incidents – not safe for women who cover their heads.

A woman who decides she prefers not to be a walking banner of Islam – the day after the San Bernardino shooting for example – is treated as if she is selling out, a non-warrior, trying to be White, etc. The burden is too much.

Many Muslims, men and women, who do not visibly appear to be Muslim via clothing, beards, etc. are also rendered invisible by this discursive use of imagery.

Second: Whether Islamist over-emphasis on head-covers – that deprives women of agency – or Asra Nomani’s “jihad” against head-covers -that also deprives women of agency – both are problematic.

Asra Nomani’s attack on hijab-wearing and hijab solidarity is incredibly poorly-timed. When Muslim girls wearing head-covers are getting bullied at school and Muslim women attacked on the street, this is not a time to start a campaign against hijab-solidarity. This is actually a way to render the headscarf a target even more than it already is.

Third: The internal Muslim dialogue on clothing and women’s bodies is an ongoing one. A call for non-Muslims to abandon solidarity in order to protect Muslim women from body-surveillance is bad strategy, and is unnecessary. If anything, it is likely to increase political pressure on uncertain Muslim women to maintain a besieged practice. Internal dialogue and diversity of practice evolve on their own time and at their own pace, if and when practitioners desire. At present, such discursive strategies turn surveillance to Muslim women’s heads and bodies all over again.

Fourth: The divisive shift that focuses on the distinction between Muslim women who cover their heads and who don’t is unhelpful and unnecessary. We live in a pluralistic community where Muslims practice Islam in a variety of ways, in a variety of sectarian and denominational settings, a variety of flavors and types. We are okay with this. Coexisting within a diverse community of practice is a useful method to learn how to co-exist in a diverse world and society.

Fifth: I am responding to the vigorous rhetoric of Muslim males railing against Asra Nomani’s article. Some of these Muslim male responses use the occasion to ridicule even any justified critiques of over-emphasis on Muslim women’s clothing. Back off, please. The control of women’s bodies is still a problem.


I didn’t bother to read Nomani’s Washington Post piece. Judging by the title, I assumed it (as my brilliant student @zaynabshahar put it) “deconstructed hijab solidarity as a rising trend” and critiqued the commodification and consumption of hijab. It didn’t do that. Asra Nomani says we have to fight hijab, and abandon hijab solidarity practices. Why? Because some women are forced to wear headcovers.

It is true that some women are forced to wear particular types of clothing. (Some people, who remain unnamed, have sensory issues and are forced to wear fitted suits and uncomfortable shoes). Some women in Muslim settings are forced to wear headcovers. Does this mean hijab is always an oppressive force?

Nomani’s argument is flawed. If some women are forced into marriage, do we call for a solidarity boycott of marriage? The freedom to practice is essential, but hijab itself doesn’t create mandatory headcover practices and associated shaming.

Some choose to practice it, others don’t. I do not. Many of my friends do. I support all of them. I talk about pluralism of practice within Muslim communities in my book, and I talk about how some imams, some scholars, and some writers throw dynamite into this pluralism, pitting hijab-wearers against non-hijab wearers.

All these discussions of hijab are so old & done. Seriously: did we just roll back to the 80s and 90s? Wear it or not. And now, instead of discursively attacking women with headcovers, or attacking visibly Muslim people in the street or the school playground, let’s move on to attacking and dismantling racism, oppression, poverty, hunger, genocide, and exploitation.

And here is an important reminder to avoid essentializing & distilling Muslim identity, difference, & courage in the form only of a headscarf: