Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Into the land of the unknown

One of my best friends left for Libya, her family's home country, last night. I can't help but fear that was the last time I'll ever see her.

In her family, there are ten kids. The eldest son refuses to live with his father because of the abuse he sustained in the household, and has spent several years in counseling to overcome his past. My friend happens to be the second oldest. All the girls, even the youngest ones, fear and refuse marriage because they don't want to live life like their mother and be subjected to an overbearing man.

Her father is the type that gives Muslims and Arabs a bad reputation. In public, he's upstanding and polite. Behind closed doors he's oppressive, paranoid, and worse, violent. I've heard countless stories from the girls about what he's done in moments of anger. Coming from an abusive past myself, it's all classic symptoms to me.

And if abuse isn't enough, he uses "religion" as a punishment. For example, in their household, if you do something wrong, you're forced to memorize Qur'an. If you don't memorize it in the certain amount of time, you're beaten, and so on. MashaAllah, most of the kids are hafiz or hafiza, but it means nothing to the heart if it is beaten into you.

I guess over the last couple of years, I've witnessed my friend step in and out of her past. After a particularly violent outburst, she decided to leave home. She couldn't go far because she was tied to the university and of course, her sisters. However, she got a job on her own and stayed with us, her friends, until she could find her own place. She took off her hijab and jilbab that had been forced on her, and colored her hair so the community and her father couldn't easily recognize her in a crowd.

The abuse didn't really go public until a private conversation between a loose-lipped lady at the masjid and one of my friend's sisters somehow got passed along. People started talking badly about her father, who, until the news got spread was referred to as "sheikh" around the community. But still, people still talked badly about my friend for leaving home. They would say "this is her amana" or her responsibility to bear, and she should return to her parents.

My friend was constantly ridiculed and considered "loose" for leaving her violent home. Women in the community would come to her and ask her if she'd like to get married - assuming her purpose for leaving was to have "freedom." They would also try and convince her to go home. Even two notoriously verbose American converts would talk so openly about the family's business and abuse and gladly spread the rumors. However, they said, because she's Arab, she needed to return home. "It's just not the same for them. She's ruining her family," they would say.

It was a conflict I didn't quite understand. However, it started to become clear to me after my friend told me her mom refused to divorce her dad. "This is all she knows," she had told me. "She thinks this is all there is for her." I guess in some, very corrupt circles of thought, abuse and violence towards women is normal and something a woman, if a she is ever so unfortunate to encounter, should keep hidden to protect the honor of her family.

But where is the honor in a family who allows such things? Where is the honor in people who so blatantly go against the teaching of Islam and supposedly do it in the NAME of Islam? And better yet, where is the honor in a group of people who widely accept abuse as the norm?

She ignored it all, and burned bridges and cut ties when needed. I admired her for her strength and her willingness to learn how to live life on her own. She would frequently return home when her father was away to visit her family. But when she came back, I could see how taxing it was to step back into the shadows. Her mother was so needy as she was never allowed to learn to manage finances and life on her own, and constantly asked her to come home. Her sisters yearned to do the same as she did, and eventually, another left as well.

Her father returned from Libya with some relatives all proclaiming how much money he was making and how successful he was. Of course my friend was happy to see new family members and get to know them. However, they all began telling the children how they should return to Libya with their father. It was like a planned act. One by one, the relatives would mention something about how "wonderful" Libya would be.

At first, all the girls rolled their eyes. They all wanted to be in touch with their heritage and culture, but why would they want to leave their colleges, their friends, and the life they've known since they were born?

Then came the plane tickets. Their father told them the lease on their house was ending in August, and produced plane tickets and passports for all of them to board a plane for Libya.

At first, my friend and her sisters completely refused to go. However, one by one, her sisters were convinced that they should go as a family. Still my friend refused. She called me last week to tell me how torn she felt. Her mother and her siblings, all but her oldest brother, were leaving for Libya, and she'd always wanted to go. However, she wanted it to be on her own terms.

She even said she knew her father would have an easier time controlling his children and she suspected that was his prime motivation for the mass exodus to Libya. After all, why would a man who came to the U.S. himself to become educated and make money take his daughters out of colleges here to go to a third world country? It had to be more than just a "visit."

Still she couldn't decide. My husband and I told her to wait. After all she has a job in the university and an apartment of her own here - she could save up money and go to visit soon. Her father promised if no one liked it that they could return. But who's to say he would actually keep his word? Who's to say he won't set fire to their passports as soon as they're on Libyan soil? Where they come from in Libya, not only is it expected of you to marry from the same region and city, it's expected that you marry from the same family. My friend's parents are first cousins who were arranged to marry. So who's to say that there isn't a cousin waiting for each eligible girl when they get there?

In a place to tribal, true Islam is hard to find. Yet her father kept insisting it is where their faith would be strengthened and they would learn to be real Muslims. By "real" I think he means learn to give up all independence. My friend said the women there have no ambition. They're greatest ambition is to produce the most babies and have the best drapes. She was even beginning to be completely annoyed by the close mindedness of her relatives from back home. She has dreams of becoming a doctor or a researcher, but they keep pushing her to get married, of course.

She weighed all the risks and annoyances, and decided it would be best if she stayed behind. After all, if he didn't allow the girls to come back, at least she'd be here to contact the embassy on their behalf.

Last night my husband and I were in a cafe with chatting with a new convert guy that we've been mentoring. My friend walked in with her face wet and her eyes red from tears. "I have some news for you," she said. "I'm going."

I'm sure my jaw dropped clear to the floor. I asked her what had changed her mind. She said her mother had called sobbing and begging her to go and refusing to get on the plane without her. She still said, "no" until her father got on the phone and told her she could return in one week if she wanted, on his word. She beamed, "this is the first time my father has ever come to an agreement with me on my terms."

I bluntly spouted, "- and you really think he means it?"

She shrugged. "I'm excited. I know, I KNOW it's a risk, but I just...I can't Amie. I have to go. Well, aren't you going to hug me?"

I stood to hug her goodbye biting back my tears. "Keep the embassy on speed dial," she said as she squeezed me tightly. "I'll miss you."

My memory flashed back to the night before I got married in the same cafe.

"Things are going to be different, you know," she said, holding back tears.
"No they're not! What do you mean "different?"
"We're just - not going to be as close, you know. And you're one of my best friends."
"We'll always be close."
"You say that now. We'll see."

Those words burned in me as I held her there. She had been right. I was so wrong. I got so caught up in my own life that when she'd call to hang out I'd turn her down a lot of times. Our daily coffee meetings which usually turned into all-day hang outs became weekly phone conversations. Those later turned into random Facebook posts of, "I miss you," and the like. What if I had been there for her like I used to be? Would she feel like she wasn't so alone without her family?

Of course, she's a smart girl, and I'm not going to be so arrogant as to say she's based her decision on my absenteeism. But how did she go from being so upset at her father that she left his house, to trusting him on his home field? The family ties are strong, and I'm sure she's feeling the pressure.

I called her after I got home. I couldn't hold back my sobs when I asked her if she was sure she was going to go and when she would be back. "Don't worry about me, Amie. You have enough to worry about. Take care of that bellybean you've got. I'll be fine."

She texted me today and asked if I wanted anything from the "homeland." I said, "I want you to come back. And anything else cool you can scrounge up."

Call me ye of little faith, but I can't help but imagine what their life is going to be like in Libya. Her mother, behind their backs, went shopping for all of them. She bought them each a wardrobe of black abayas because they need to leave their modest "Western" clothes behind. Already they're expected to shed their identities.

This time, I really hope I'm wrong again.


Anonymous said...

two things:

1- bellybean!!!

2- crap, she went? May Allah keep her safe... If necessary I could head to Libya if she needs saving? It is just next door.

Ya rab.

Umm Salihah said...

Families can be bad in any faith or community, but what really gets me is the way other Muslims have behaved so badly towards this sister at every turn.