Three months and one week from now will mark the 5th anniversary of my divorce from a short-lived, not-so-holy matrimony. It lasted for a mere month and a half, and then dissolved after it became clear to me that I was being used as a pawn for a Green Card. I witnessed marriages unravel all around me – my own brother, unlucky girls from the Mosque, fickle Hollywood celebrities – but never had I imagined I would be plastered on the front page of that gossip column. Never in a million years would I have thought I would be married and divorced all within the 21st year of my blossoming youth.
As a female of Pakistani descent and Ahmadi-Muslim religious persuasion, the concept of marriage had been subliminally embedded in my mind from a young age. I remember the secret chatter amongst my girlfriends and I, in the little nook of the mosque where we’d gather during the few minutes between Sunday School and afternoon prayer, almost always being about which boy was the cutest and who would end up marrying whom within our very small, close-knit community (as marrying outside of the Ahmadi sect is blasphemous). Often times I would notice my friends placing more importance on their physical presentation when going to the mosque than when attending school or taking a trip to the movies and mall. One would think because those are the typical hang-outs for teenagers that the girls would be most concerned with looking their best in those settings, but it was quite the contrary. I remember my Catholic and Christian friends complaining about having to get up early to dress up for church on Sunday mornings, and here my mosque-friends and I were discussing what to wear the night before. Now, I often find myself puzzled and wondering why and how my friends and I – at ages 15, 16, 17 – were privy to the concept of impressing ‘Aunties’ at the mosque because they may one day be interested in making us their daughters-in-law.
Was this a result of the restrictions and taboos placed around intermingling of sexes, a common concept among Muslim-Americans? Were we so starved of our natural desire to have innocent exchanges with our crushes – Stephen or Mark – that we became consumed by thoughts of the day it would finally be acceptable to openly swoon over a boy – the day our parents would arrange for us to be married to Omar or Khalil? What conditioned us to think this way?
I fear that some variation of these contemplations might often be the reality for many Muslim-American girls. This is a very painful thought for me to accept, especially when our parents immigrated to the land of the free as a result of the cultural stagnancy and religious intolerance they were forced to endure back home. It is unacceptable then that (to some degree) they are perpetuating those very limitations on their own daughters by way of marital expectations. It is not to say that I am encouraging denunciation of ones culture or religion upon resettlement to the ‘new world,’ however it is important to somewhat adapt to our surroundings and take advantage of the freedoms and opportunities allotted to us. For parents, happiness often comes from seeing joy and success greet their children. It is important to realize, however, that success and joy don’t necessarily need to be measured by a seemingly blissful marriage and 2.5 children. In fact, with the current statistics on the rate of divorce, we should think twice before equating marriage with happiness.
Divorce rates in the US are higher than ever before, and Muslim girls have a part in it. Because it was so stigmatized once upon a time (yet religiously allowed), Muslim women endured years of unfulfilling marriages and bore child after child, as they were expected. However, Muslim girls raised in the US are living in a different world than their parents, and are increasingly growing to learn that there is a future besides married with children and beyond a divorce – a truth it took me a very long time to acknowledge. It is when I realized that marriage was not the be-all end-all that I decided to reclaim my future. I did not have to assume the role of damsel in distress, victim, martyr – instead I could turn my sorrow into strengths.
Well over a year passed when I had the epiphany to start a nonprofit organization – a one-stop-shop for Muslims girls feeling pressured or forced into marriage, those suffering through troubled marriages, and others looking for resources or support to find an out. I envisioned providing a hot line service, counseling (individual, marital and family), resources for lawyers well-versed in Islamic law and Islamic law jurisprudents, scholarships for girls seeking a second chance, and creating a network of girls facing similar situations who could rely on each other for hope. I was incredibly passionate about the idea, but began to put it on the back burner as I contemplated the difficulty in creating success around such an unusual endeavor.
After my divorce, I returned home to DC and began working for Corporate America, unhappy with an overwhelming feeling of not meeting my potential. I didn’t see it as such then, but getting laid off was a blessing in disguise. I had been yearning to go back to school to acquire the necessary knowledge-base to work with women and girls in developing countries, and could finally make it reality. I completed my Masters at the School of Oriental and African Studies, and focused my thesis on Palestinian women pursuing a nonviolent approach to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Four months have gone by since I was awarded my degree with honors, and since then I have spent countless hours on tailoring my resume and creating numerous cover letters in efforts to land my ideal job. Stressed out and at a standstill on the job-front, I found myself revisiting the possibility of starting the nonprofit. It wasn’t until today, three and a half years since I first conceived the idea, that I was fueled with such fervor to realize its existence. Why had I discontinued my dreams of it to begin with? And what better way to gauge the response to it than by blogging my thoughts to determine its relevance and reception.
So here we are. My intention is simple and three-fold: to create the safe space that I longed for as a Muslim-American girl when I was going through the process of marriage and divorce, to fulfill my passion to empower women and help them reach their dreams and full potential, and in the process realize my own. No longer should girls feel that their only destiny is to be someone’s wife. No longer should they have to face anxiety after a divorce, out of fear that peoples’ gazes of disgrace will pierce through them like a sword and diminish their existence. No longer should we be kept from finding the happiness within ourselves.
You may encounter many defeats,
But you must not be defeated.
In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats,
So you can know who you are,
What you can rise from,
How you can still come out of it.