Note to self: Don’t go out for a walk on the nature trail when every landscaping company in the area is out cutting the grass. Not fun!
This morning, I was struggling with a tricky concept in chapter eight of my work in progress, shooting for a third novel by the end of 2015. And like I always do when I get mentally stuck, I go for long walks on the trail by the creek close to my house. I tried to ignore the buzzing sounds of tractors and lawn mowers by reflecting on an incident or rather an experience I had last week.
A professor friend of mine who teaches a course about Gender and Islam asked me for a favor. She was struck by how many of her students never even met a Muslim woman before, let alone had a sustained conversation with one. She asked if I would be open to having a student interview me as part of an assignment to write an essay about both the experience and me. I thought it a great idea, an opportunity to dispel any misconceptions that might be present in the student’s mind. I’ve always advocated for putting the responsibility on the shoulders of us women to dispel stereotypes, and especially us Muslim women to shatter the dark images/concepts that are shoved onto us by people who don’t know much about Islam. I believe we have a role; I have a role, a duty to speak up and defend what I believe in. I abhor complaining, and I hate waiting for someone to do something, or for an event to just happen and change the status quo. I believe in trying - not necessarily succeeding - to engage as much as possible in the society I live in. So I went to the interview, armed and ready.
Of course there is no way for me to know what the student wrote about me after the nearly two-hour conversation, and that’s not what really concerned me this morning during my walk. What I mulled on was my own reaction to the deep questions asked of how I perceive myself as a Muslim woman. Questions concerning my views on gender roles, sexuality, spirituality, practices, motherhood, work outside the home, LBGT issues, and dress code to name a few. I promised myself to be as honest as possible with the extremely polite and intellectual student, and I was taken aback by how some of my ideas and personal beliefs affected me when I articulated them. Thoughts gain a different measure of weight when they are spoken, a higher elevation when they are explained, and they open up whole worlds when they cross the isle and are received as they were meant.
I always thought of myself a deeply spiritual person. If people want to put me in a box and stick a label on it, they would probably use Liberal Muslim. I, however, try to shy away from labels when it comes to people, and being totally honest, it was not an easy road traveled to free my mind of such biases, for I had plenty. I am ashamed to admit few still linger. Halfway through the interview I noticed how defensive I became, projecting my pre-perceived notion that by simply being asked those questions, I was being attacked. That was not the case at all. I forced myself to stop and switch direction. I didn’t need to be in defensive mode all the time, a habit so hard to get rid off in the times we live in. I didn’t need to protect my beliefs and my idea of Islam. This wonderful student simply wanted to know who I am, and what I stand for, and I owed her nothing less than complete openness. I am who I am. I seek not her approval, nor reject her scorn. I believe that was the goal of the assignment, after all.
This morning, I swiped away the grass cuts flying in my face and headed home. Like those lawn mowers on the walk trail, I tend to push my way through situations not paying attention to the noise and chaos my approach sometimes leaves behind. From the other side of that interview table, I saw the damage I could have caused had I not dropped my shield and opened up. I only hope the student saw me with clarity.