May 042016

by Eman Hassaballa Aly

I have a vessel in me. I don’t know where it’s housed or how big it is, but I know when it’s full, because that’s when I get the urge to write.  Maybe it’s my inner pen, and it gets full of ink. Whatever it is, it’s full now and I’m ready to write.

I’d like it to be a rant, but rants are boring. Rants don’t do anything but stir people’s emotions and make them say “hell ya!” When I write, I want to empower people, and inspire people to find it in within themselves to make their situation better. I always tell my clients, that my job is to equip them with the tools to be able handle whatever is dealt to them.  Tools that I wasn’t fortunate enough to be given when I was more malleable and younger. It’s harder to change the older I get, but I still try.

I am a true believer of the right time and the right place for everything. Whether it’s people I meet, places I go, or things that happen to me, they always seem to happen at the perfect time for me.  Don’t think that I’m saying that there’s a unicorn in the sky somewhere sprinkling some magic dust on everything. But I do though believe that God is behind everything, and I am grateful when things work out perfectly and neatly. God and my jugular vein are like this *fingers crossed*. But I learned to not try to read the stars or signs too closely, or else it will drive me crazy.  Ultimately, what I’m trying to say it’s not a miracle that my belief has become my reality, because it was a gradual change in the perception that allowed it to happen.

So speaking of perfect timing, in the fall of 2015, I took an Islam and gender class at the American Islamic College, where I’m studying to be a chaplain. And it could not have come at a better time. Just like back in the spring and summer of 2014, I got through the Millennium Trilogy, which oddly enough primed me for one big test in my life, which was also a primer for the class. But that’s for another time and place. As usual, I digress. So this class was taught brilliantly by Dr. Shabana Mir, who was midway through her first semester at AIC. And I almost took this class my first semester, but that was neither the right time, nor the right teacher for me. Plus it was on the wrong day for me. I’m more aware of the subtleties surrounding issues of gender.  I’m not talking about space in mosques or on boards. I’m talking about the bits of patriarchy here and there that have crept into our books of law, the wolf of sexism that’s dressed in the sheep’s clothing of piety and the misogyny that is (ill) supported by the Text and Tradition that is either inauthentic, misinterpreted or taken completely out of context.

Even in my own maturity and development, I drank the patrichool-aid, and used to advocate some of these nonsensical (at least to me) ideas about what a wife should be according to Islam. In my defense though, I thought that would make me more marketable as a wife, since my weight was something that I was told would work against me. Thankfully, as I got older these, ideas were slowly getting replaced with ones that I think more accurately reflect the tradition I have grown to love. And with that life happening the tools I needed started to fill a mostly empty toolbox of life skills.

Misogyny, Sexism and patriarchy isn’t a Muslim problem, but it’s a problem for Muslims because it’s something that affects all humans, and believe it or not Muslims are humans too. Women still make 22 cents less to every dollar that a man makes. And there are countless articles about how women are forced to dumb themselves down, or put themselves down and so on and so forth. Recently, the Internet cracked a bit when Jennifer Lawrence asked why she makes less than her male co-stars? And this hilarious, but also sad blog post that really made me think about the way that I talk to people. I have become militantly intolerant of that kind of language from my girlfriends, and I’ve stopped saying sorry to people about things I’m not sorry for #sorrynotsorry. But here’s something else I stopped doing, I have stopped allowing people to mistreat me.

I’m not saying I get mistreated because I’m a woman, but I do carry three potential strikes with me all the time. I’m a fat Muslim woman.  These are three categories that are marks for discrimination. But again, I’m not saying that I get mistreated because of those either.

The reason I continue to get mistreated is because of my silence. I’ve learned in therapy why I become silent when someone harms me, much of it has to do with past trauma. My silence was the way I protected myself. It also silenced my ability to express myself, and that was also a protection for me. It was my way of showing people that whatever they said didn’t hurt me. Even though I may have been dying inside, my face wasn’t going to show any pain and I didn’t  even wince.  I attribute the lack of affect in my face that I have sometimes to that, and I feel like my facial expressions lack sophistication and nuance. So what the heck do I do about that?

So far it’s been a work in progress for me.  There’s been a lot of internal heart and soul work. It’s like gutting out and rehabbing a house. As soon as the floors are pulled up, it’s clear that there are some structural issues and something that’s central to the stability of the home has to be fixed. I watch a lot of HGTV. But the same thing applies to the self. I can treat the anxiety, and teach someone how to manage it on a surface level, but I have to get to the core of what causes the anxiety, or else when additional trauma occurs, the anxiety could potentially come back stronger.  I could not have come to realization that my silence was harming me, without all the previous work done before.

And to the one causing the harm, my silence somehow communicates that it is okay to continue the harm. Most people don’t intend to harm people. God protect us from those people.  Well-intentioned advice, a comment, an inquiry, an innocent suggestion or even a compliment can cause harm.  People sometimes project their own issues on others, and many people see the world through the lens of their own trauma or baggage. It’s not my quote, but hurt people hurt people.  And to understand that, I had to understand who I was and through what lens I saw the world.

And my heart-work continues. I know I said that I wanted to give you tools you can use to progress, and I just want to get the conversation going. The easiest way is for me to share my struggles and triumphs. I want to share my regression, too. It’s inevitable.  I also want to hear from you.  This kind of trauma won’t be healed in one post, not even in ten posts. Please leave a comment below.

Eman Hassaballa Aly works for the Health Media Collaboratory (HMC) at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) as Director of Communications. Additionally, she works part-time for the Heartspeak Institute, a private practice that serves the Chicago Muslim community. Currently, she is pursuing her master’s degree in Islamic Studies at the American Islamic College and hopes to serve as a chaplain in the university setting.

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