Continuing our story.
I told him I needed to think about it. That I was concerned about the physical distance between us, living on different continents. That with our professions, we might never end up in the same place and I can’t have a relationship or marriage in which I am not in the same house as my spouse. He said he understood.
I declined his request for us to re-consider a relationship. But we remained good friends, closer than we had been earlier. I sent him voice notes of myself reciting the Qur’an, and he did the same; it was something I’d always wanted from him. We started speaking more frequently, I sharing my exhausting adventures of potential loves with him, occasionally crying as necessary about yet another male hypocrite who lived a life of double standards because of which we couldn’t work out—a common cause of almost all of my failed attempts at relationship and something I am so infinitely grateful for, all the failed relationships.
Months later, mutual friends and colleagues of ours on different occasions suggested he and I be together, that they think we have a certain chemistry, that we’d be good for each other. It was strange to us that anyone could ever sense this chemistry because of how different we are. I told them we’d talked about it and had decided against it. But I thought about it some more and re-introduced the idea to him. It was now his turn to decline and to remind me of the obstacles, which included his family: his parents would never allow him to marry someone of my race. I am familiar with this kind of racist bigotry, having experienced it in a previous relationship as well as having had my own parents be guilty of perpetuating it. So I didn’t resist, but both of us were now tempted more than ever before. I joked with him that someone whom he (used to) care about whom I have called out on his patriarchy and white supremacy would disapprove, and he responded that he didn’t care what opinions his colleagues had of his romantic life. I was relieved—but naïve to think he would remember this and that he would remain true to these words when the time came.
We met again at another conference. Our feelings for each other at this point were the strongest they had been yet, and we decided that we definitely were going to be together. That we would fight for each other, that we would make this work because it was the right thing to do, being together. We agreed that we would enter a relationship and figure out how to share the news with his family as we moved along. We’d begin by simply introducing to his parents the idea of a girl in his life, and gradually – months after – tell them we were serious. My own parents were more likely to accept the news, though perhaps also with a battle. For cultural and other reasons, we agreed together on how and when we’d break the news to both sides. In hindsight, we both see what all was wrong with this plan. We were too innocent to see the harm here. We were also too foolish to understand that the pettiness of some of the very few people we trusted with the news of our relationship would contribute to the end of us.
After deciding to be together certainly and against all odds, we began making plans to see each other again within months. We traveled to a favorite city of ours where we fell even more in love, with each other. This is when we learned we were completely perfect together, that we made a great team, that we balanced each other out, that we were genuinely happy, that we fulfilled each other in ways neither of us had ever been fulfilled before.
Both of us had had unfulfilling and unhealthy relationships in the past, so we were new to this experience of utter bliss. This fulfilling togetherness. Before him, I had never felt this kind of intimacy. I didn’t know it was an option, that I was deserving of it, that it was available anywhere—and to me! Intimacy with him was something as simple yet beautiful as sitting together as he sent out job applications that I gave him feedback for and his giving me essential references for my research by making quick phone calls. Intimacy with him was searching for a quiet place where he could perform one of the five obligatory prayers as we walked around our favorite city; on one occasion, I spread my scarf for him to pray on, which I’d been wearing because of the paralyzing cold weather. Intimacy with him was laughing so wholeheartedly and hearing his wholehearted, deep laughter that made his perfect face shine and my eyes sparkle with joy and calmness. Intimacy with him was holding each other’s hands and looking each other in the eyes when the other was stressed and bringing them peace. Intimacy with him was my requests to him to pray out loud because there is something breathtakingly soothing about his voice when he recites divine words. Intimacy with him was us praying together, in a congregation, just him and me, him praying out loud. Intimacy with him was eating at the same restaurant for several consecutive days because we both loved it. Intimacy with him was searching for a restaurant that had our favorite dessert—kinafeh—and walking several miles to it, but not feeling the distance because I craved his company so deeply that I never felt the length of any of our time together. Intimacy with him was sitting at a restaurant, him asking me where I want to sit, then gently moving the condiments to the side so he could hold my hands on the table and tell me things he had never said out loud before, shared secrets with me, childhood memories, hilarious life anecdotes, personal and other troubles, sources of trauma and healing. Intimacy with him was his earnest attention towards me as I talked about patriarchy, about popular Muslim “scholars” and celebrity shaikhs misleading and misguiding Muslims who are sincerely looking for ways to apply these leaders’ bigoted interpretations of Islam because they don’t know there is an alternative, egalitarian, more just Islam out there as well; about the ways that these shaikhs perpetuate and practice misogyny by dismissing Muslim women’s concerns and questions about Islam. He listened to me talk about menstruation, about the patriarchy of the dismissal of menstrual pain; I vented to him about my fear around taking painkillers multiple times a month that the label warns can cause serious liver damage. When we were together in the same space while I was on my period, he respectfully watched and listened to me express my physical, emotional, psychological hurt about the troubles that come with being a woman living under patriarchy. He made me chamomile tea when it was the only thing that would calm my uterus down during menstruation. When I ran out of painkillers, he went to the drugstore first thing in the morning to get me the drugs that would keep me sane for 6-12 hours.
Patriarchy tells women like me to be grateful for a man like him, for the wrong reasons. For the wrong reasons, patriarchy tells us to be grateful for a guy who “isn’t like all the other guys,” someone who doesn’t see women as complete humans, who is disgusted by the reality of the female biology. But that’s not why I was grateful for him, for his presence during my menstruation-related crises, thrills, and breakthroughs. It wasn’t just any man, just any non-menstruating person, who sat there and engaged me as I shared my excitement of using a menstrual cup— it was my best friend, my favorite adult human, who was with me, who hurt with me, who consoled me, who took care of me during many vulnerable moments.
His displays of feminist knowledge and practice, and other anti-patriarchal gestures, big and small, were just a constant breath of fresh air. When we discussed marriage, he agreed to my condition that there be no mahr (dower) as traditional fiqh understands it, that we’ll re-interpret mahr our way instead. When discussing the possibility of having children one day, I asked him what their last name would be, the idea being that we were not going to assume they would take his last name as expected in a patriarchy. “We could combine parts of our last names and make a new one,” he offered, taking my breath away. This was a suggestion someone had made on my Facebook in a discussion about children’s last names in an egalitarian marriage. Parts of our last names combined do indeed form a new possible word. His acknowledgment that in a marriage, everything was up for a discussion and neither of us would assume privileges the other couldn’t enjoy as well, that made me so grateful to God for bringing us together. Another time, I suggested I paint his nails—with red nail polish I was carrying. He replied straightforwardly, “Sure. But is it possible to remove it because I’ll need to pray.” I grinned and said yes, there’s nail polish remover.
It was simply easy to love him, to be with him. When we’d talk about feelings with each other, I would often sing this song to him that went, “Cuz you get me and I get you. Together there’s nothing we can’t do” sung by a male and female Tom Cats. I would reference Bollywood songs, too, because they often do a much better job capturing my feelings than I do. Bollywood gets me like that. With him, I knew what it was like to have my heart overfilled with love and joy.
Despite all of our challenges and obstacles that we would soon face, I have never felt as safe with anyone else, any other man, as I did, or continue to, with him. He would tell me I was easy to love, too. I am one of the most stunningly complicated people I know and love, and there he was, telling me, in all my complexities, that he found it so easy to be with me, to love me. In a patriarchy, for men, a woman like me is unlovable, impossible to be with. Given what happened eventually that led to the end of us, I am aware of the irony of the fact that I felt safe with him—and yet, I remain feeling that he is the safest man I have ever been in the presence of. I am complex, after all, like all humans.
I could not imagine us not being together, ever, after having experienced togetherness. I didn’t think not being together would ever be an option now. Wasn’t I set for life now?
But, alas, patriarchy, racism, and other forms of bigotry had other plans for me. The very realities and oppressions I have committed my life to helping eradicate would turn out to be some of the primary obstacles in the most beautiful love story I knew.
Because months after we became a couple, someone he foolishly considered a mentor—a racist, patriarchal white male convert to Islam whom we’ll call Gora Bala (lit. “white evil”)—learned that we were together and threatened to tell his parents and other patriarchal men in my partner’s network. “It was your moral duty to notify us,” he threatened my partner, as though he was entitled to any information of anyone’s private life. This misogynist is the same person I had brought up with my partner earlier in a joke that he would not approve of us, and my partner had said he didn’t care. Sure enough, Gora Bala—with his fragile ego that I have clearly wounded so deeply that I have been told his face turns yellow when my name comes up in conversations as he looks around wondering if I’m there—made some phone calls to urge a family friend of my partner’s to “advise him” against me. Gora Bala also called him terrible names; my partner would later tell me no one has ever insulted him and cursed at him the way Gora Bala did. While neither of us could ever figure out exactly why a sexist white male covert to Islam who preys on especially young Muslim women would be so desperately invested in our relationship, we have our theories.
To be continued.
Note: We will return to this point in the story, about the abuse of men in positions of power, exploiting their students, mentees, and especially women and getting away with it. This story is less about me and my partner. It’s more about abuse of power, of male abusers not knowing their boundaries and having been so accustomed to exploiting younger, vulnerable people that they refuse to distinguish between the personal and the professional. There are a lot of stories like this, so this isn’t an isolated case.
P.S. Update, beloved readers: A huge thank-you to the overwhelmingly supportive feedback from everyone who read (or heard about) this story so far! We’re grateful for all the feedback we’ve received, all the support. Thank you! We’ve been back and forth about the excellent and welcome advice of taking this story further and publishing it in a different platform, a different medium. So we’re going to pause the story temporarily. Don’t worry – I promise I’ll share it in completion here! As I said above, the abuse of power in this story is an important issue that needs to be addressed, especially since this wasn’t the first or last time Gora Bala did something this unethical and unprofessional to anyone (e.g., other especially Muslim women have told me that he’s hurt them, too, and apparently, turning young professional women to their superiors is a thing that he does, like to me and others I know, when we disagree with him or call him out on his bigotry). So this story is definitely not over, but we’re going to pause it for now. I’m grateful for the readership ❤ Salaam!
Categories: Death to patriarchy