Writing is difficult for me. Being brutally honest with my audience, with myself. I spent years hiding my thoughts from others. We all have our traumas and travesties. Some of us learn to hide it all away, to bury it under wit or sarcasm. Writing this book has been a cathartic experience.
However, I have been admonished lately by peers because the heroines of my novel, Ruination, are not considered acceptable female role models in the Arab/Muslim world. Noor, an unmarried mother of an illegitimate child; Ahlam, a sexually fluid teenage girl who chooses to wear hijab. They challenge the code. Gay. Unmarried. Female. They are an amalgamation of all the traits we are supposed to repudiate.
And for me, they are so much more.
I came up in a pro-woman household, with strong feminist ethos. I went to a progressive Catholic all-girls school, ran by Sinsinnawan nuns, not the Archdiocese. I taught for years in an all-girls Islamic school. I have spent the better part of my life in service to the betterment of my sex, encouraging young women to be something more than what other would define them.
With that knowledge, I realized that in a diverse world, being an experimental–perhaps fluid, perhaps gay–teenage Muslim girl in hijab had to be the loneliest planet to inhabit. I think I may have known a few, but speaking it would have been a grave injustice. Women inhabit a curious world of silence, and no more so than those who challenge the status quo. She would have to keep the world at a distance. She would have to be silent. She would have to hide her love away. My character, Ahlam, the dreamer, looking forward to a future with the love of her life. Is that love platonic? Sexual? Romantic? Who knows? She certainly does not. In the way feelings are layered, hers could not be described in any one way. However, she instinctively knows that silence is her only recourse.
Noor, head strong, combative, and utterly alone. If Ahlam has to keep people light years away, Noor has to segregate herself on a tiny island, just herself, her son, and eventually, her Dean. She had to create life in order to find the love she needed. She literally isolates herself in what becomes a segregated bantustan in order to have peace. She is happy in her bubble, and it is the introduction of the outside family that bursts that bubble.
However, the themes of the book are grander than the sexuality of either heroine. They are survivors. They are what is left when the rubble is shoveled away. Their years of hiding, of silence, of listening, of isolation has prepared them for a changed world. It is the rest of the family, clinging to tradition, to old feuds, to zealotry, who struggle in this changing landscape.
Yet it amazes me…and maybe it shouldn’t…that the outrage I have heard has been because of a lesbian kiss and an illegitimate child. There has been no outrage at the concepts of race, segregation, secession, sexual and domestic violence, child abuse, and the ever pervasive radicalization of a mentally ill Muslim woman. Those things are somehow acceptable, palatable…perhaps, normal.
But a lesbian Muslim in hijab…now, that’s haram!