I wanted to believe that my father loved me. He showed me off with pride and convinced the entire Arab community, and maybe himself, that he didn’t mind that his first child was a girl. Sons of Arab fathers are more valued and praised than daughters. My father would try to boast about me the same way a typical Arab father would boast about a son, if not more. He wanted to come off as progressive, something to feed his ego in replacement of lacking a son at the time. I was under the illusion that he celebrated me, but he celebrated himself because from the moment I was born, I gave him his freedom, and in exchange, he took mine.
“I became his honor vessel, something to contain and control while he twirled the lid between his fingers as he allowed me to grow to an extent, but made sure to seal it tight when I managed to reach the top.”
Being the first daughter of Arab Muslim immigrants in America, I had the burden of carrying my family’s honor, meaning my father’s honor - more so than any of my four younger siblings. I took away the stress of my father being responsible for his own actions when it came to dignity and pride. I became his honor vessel, something to contain and control while he twirled the lid between his fingers as he allowed me to grow to an extent, but made sure to seal it tight when I managed to reach the top. As a young child, I was fearless before actually realizing what I meant to my father, or Baba, as we called him. I was hyperactive - a destructive little hurricane, I used to wake up at the crack of dawn just to go run around, jump and play. Everyone loved it until it stopped being cute to Baba. I was at the lively age of 7 when he sat me down and told me I needed to start acting like a lady and be an example to my younger sisters. He didn’t let me know that there would be consequences if I didn’t take him seriously enough.
As I reflect back, my father is not big in height, but he is a big man. You can imagine, as a little kid, especially when it comes to your father, he seemed like a giant. He has a deep loud voice that added to his stature. Whenever he yelled, it would make me stop dead in my tracks out of fright. My father has broad shoulders and walked with them bulging out, as if he was constantly ready for a fight. He has soft hazel eyes but his burrowing eyebrows seemed to darken them. His skin is olive toned, he has that protruding “Arab” nose, and a round face. In Islam, Allah is supposed to be the all gracious, but apparently this God did not have mercy on me when I was given most of my dad’s features.
Whenever Baba was angry, his presence frightened me. It seemed like wherever he stood, he brought darkness with him. He would tilt his head back, which dimmed the top part of his face except for his glowing eyes. It resembled the intensity of being stared down by a wolf in the middle of the night, and with a eerily calm demeanor, he would say, “go bring me your belt.”
“My father had a thick leather belt with my name deeply engraved in it.”
My ‘misbehaviors’ were always trivial, ranging from eating at the dinner table before he sat down, to walking in the house with dirty feet after playing outside. My father had a thick leather belt with my name deeply engraved in it. The belt was handmade out of full grain leather, an inch and a half wide, and a two-toned brown color. Baba would always tell my sisters and I that he had it made in “honor” of his first daughter and that it belonged to me. He kept it in his closet, laid neatly with my name facing up on the shelf. Any time I was near it, my posture would automatically adjust to my back being straighter and my arms down, almost militarily. I could hear it hissing at me through the closet like a snake, and pictured it jumping out at me if I made a wrong move. It taunted me. And when I was caught in a trifling act, the snake would slither out of the closet, lassle around my shoulders and strangle my neck, imprinting my name onto my body with its skin, as it dragged me across the room. It released me on top of Baba’s bed, and because my feet were dirty, I had to lay on my back with my legs in the air, and strike after strike, the leather bit into my feet causing me to bruise and sometimes bleed. The snake was always in front of Baba, his face would blur and he would blend into the background. It was easy to forget that he was there because all I could hear and see was the belt. None of my younger sisters had their own belt, so when it was their turn, it was my name that was stamped on to their necks. When my father was done disciplining us, I had to go get a cloth, clean the belt, and put it back on the shelf. Since it belonged to me, I had to take care of it.
Mama liked to sit in the front living room, on the floor against our black couch. She always called it the “sunny room” because the sun would shine through the two large windows on adjacent walls that flooded the room with light. Mama sat there with her bag of sunflower seeds, chewed and cracked the shells, and then spit them out in her small ceramic bowl. Her eyes would stare off into a distant place as she contemplated about life, and every now and again would mumble to herself. I would sit there too, doing the same thing as she did. Her gaze zoned in on me one day as I accompanied her, she placed her hand under my chin and, in Arabic, asked me if I wanted to hear a story about my name – I nodded. I remember feeling the vibe shift as Mama gave me a somewhat shameful look. She then asked me who else I knew of that had the same name as me, and I replied back by saying Baba’s friend Ayla, who I referred to as Aunt Ayla. As long as I could remember, from that point, at the age of 8, Aunt Ayla was always a part of my father’s life. She married his cousin and they were good friends. Mama continued with saying that Baba was engaged to Aunt Ayla before marrying her. Immediately, I felt a rush of sudden shame and understood where this story was going. According to my mother, Baba had already named me after her since finding out I was a girl, and Mama didn’t know about his ex until after I was born. Feeling distraught, I asked Mama many questions about Baba’s relationship with another woman, questions like why he had a relationship with another woman he didn’t marry and why was my name the same as hers. After my questions, we sat in quietness while the room went from light to dark as the sun went down. I don’t know what happened to that relationship, I was never given answers, and wasn’t brave enough to ask my father. Maybe he dishonored her in some way and used my name as a way to redeem himself from her family. Nevertheless, my father used the idea of me to set the tone of my mother’s relationship with him, and it was silence. His decisions can hurt and humiliate her, and she learned to accept it.
As a sign of respect, acknowledgement, and tradition, a typical salutation that any Arab father would receive is “Abu” (which means, “the father of”) followed by the name of their first born son only. People in the Arab community would call Baba “Abu Ayla” meaning “father of Ayla,” which he insisted on. He claimed that my name was special to him, but his drive for this acknowledgement was hardly for any progressive values that he held. He wanted status and commanded respect from his peers, even if it took “altering” a traditional salutation to fit what he wanted. Eight years later when my only brother was born, Baba turned against these so called values and went back to old traditions, to receive acknowledgments that he now had a son.
In Islam, there’s a Hadith (meaning the Prophet’s words) teaching Muslims to put nothing else above Allah, then nothing else above your Mother, your Mother, and your Mother again, and then your father in that order. The purpose of this lesson is to convey how “high” a woman’s role is in Islam. At a young age, I loved this Hadith, I remember feeling empowered that my gender was a greater companion next to God, especially before men. I came to realize that this lesson was nothing more than a fantasy; a front to keep women in line and distracted from an unmatched shadow lurking behind it - man’s honor.
“But when men attack for the sake of honor, that act of murder isn’t considered challenging, instead men view it as doing Allah’s work.”
Women and girls, since birth, have been taught to tiptoe around the eggshells of a man’s honor because one small swift of a step can cause it to crack, and men have no problem repairing it with the condition of either her health or life. It astonishes me now, that a “sin” such as suicide, for example, is considered more sinful than honor driven violence. According to the beliefs in Islam, committing suicide would send you to the pits of Hell fire since it is viewed as a challenge against God as the creator. But when men attack for the sake of honor, that act of murder isn’t considered challenging, instead men view it as doing Allah’s work. Although it has been drilled into so many Muslims that suicide is forbidden, the idea of suicide is so contradictory within the religion. Many Middle Eastern and Asian cultures, that simultaneously practice Islam or don’t, see it more honorable when a woman takes her own life than to run the risk of disgracing her family’s name. Sadly, many religious women who do end up taking their own lives accept the fact that they would rather take a chance on enduring an eternity of supposed Hell fire than to watch their footsteps around a fragile man that has a God complex.
Islam calls for Muslims to pray five times daily. The first twelve years of my life or so, the only times that I’ve seen Baba pray was during Islamic holidays along with other men. My mother, on the other hand, was and is still very devoted in the religion, I had never seen her miss a prayer. Women in Islam, at least for the ones in my family, are under this delusion called strong faith. It becomes her duty and man’s responsibility, especially in a “freer” country such as America, to make sure that she is a devout Muslim. Convincing her that her purity, modesty, and faith (in that order in my experience) made her closer to Allah, but in reality it’s only to make sure that the man’s name is respectable within the Arab culture and society. It shows that he is able to control the women in his life easily. As long as my mother, my sisters, and I were faithful, Baba’s honor was intact, he was free from carrying his own religious responsibility publicly.
What a man does in his home is his business, but what a woman does in her home becomes an example of integrity to the public. What was the most burdening about being my father’s honor vessel was that his shameful actions would never have the same consequences as mine. Other men would not call him out on his bullshit because it’s seen as disrespectful to interfere with another man’s private life in his home. I was always told to sit straight, keep my legs crossed with my hands on my lap, keep my eyes down, don’t take up too much space, don’t talk too much, and to stay away from boys and men. No one told Baba to not let his eyes linger when he’d stare too much at his daughters’ bodies. One day, when I was 9 years old, I came home from school and Mama told me that she had a surprise for me in my closet. My excitement shot to the ground when I opened my closest and saw it was not the Furby toy that I really wanted at the age, instead it was my first bra. I had worn it on under my shirt that night when Baba came home from work, when I went to greet him by giving him a hug, I felt his hand rub up and down my back and then pulled on my bra to make it snap. I remember him snickering and saying, “ooh, what’s this?” I was stunned and too embarrassed to say anything. Then, to add to my mortification, he told me to stand back and said, “show me” and kept insisting, “Come on, it’s okay, just show me. Yallah, hurry show me.” Feeling pressured, I showed him, I lifted my shirt up and I showed him. After he had seen me in my bra, I quickly turned around and ran up the stairs with tears running down my face. I felt so ashamed and didn’t tell anyone. I felt like I couldn’t say anything not even to my mother, because speaking about it felt like it would have been more shameful than what my father did. The Arab society would have seen my father as the victim if I had aired out his dirty laundry to the public, or he would have been shamed, not for this actions, but for mine for speaking out and dishonoring him in front of others.
“What I realized then but didn’t want to admit, was that Islam wasn’t meant for men.”
Throughout my life experience, words like reputation, honor, and pride seemed to be more valuable to a Muslim man than life. One of the most dishonorable things a Muslim daughter can do is threaten her purity, no matter how innocent it was, which in turn threatens her father’s reputation.In the Qur’an it says, for all Muslims in general, to be forgiving, but I’ve learned that forgiveness is not mightier than a man’s honor. What I realized then but didn’t want to admit, was that Islam wasn’t meant for men. I was taught to have a weird intimacy with the Qur’an by kissing the front cover every time I held the book with clean hands. In the meanwhile, men painted themselves as God, so scripture didn’t apply to them. They interpreted the Qur’an for me, and made sure to instill that honor is what really mattered to them.
“These forgiving men act as God, they symbolically all have a hand in murder.”
When I was 14, I heard about how a 13 year old Muslim girl lost her life. I was told that she went on a date with a boy who was her age, and later on her parents found out. This simple date was enough for her father to consider her ruined and impure, and took action against her to mend his reputation. My father told me this story after he came home from a sacrament that supported this murderer. The gruesome details of her death were narrated to me and gave me clear vivid images of how it happened. I saw a tight grip held on to her hair as she stumbled down the stairs to a brightly lit basement. I pictured her tears, and I felt her rapid heartbeat through my chest. My fingers brushed against my face to where her bruises might have been. Her screams and pleading for her life rung through my ears. I shut my eyes the way she must have done when her father pulled out his gun and held it against her forehead before he shot her. My knees felt weak as I imagined the way she fell. Her name was never mentioned, she was always referred to as “his daughter.” I was told that her father was strong for preserving his family’s honor and that he would still be respected by men within our community. My father rummaged through the fridge as he spoke, and chewed on food as he mentioned details. The way he talked about it was so casual. His facial expression only became stern and the tone of his voice became serious when he also added that he would not hesitate to do the same to me or any of my sisters if we thought to do anything impure. I grew up with the understanding that Allah would forgive ritual murders because men are “sacrificing” the woman in question to restore honor back to their family and uphold the Islamic standards of purity. Being held accountable is never the priority - some men can be charged and even end up in jail for their crimes but it’s not as frequent as they are forgiven by other men for their actions. These forgiving men act as God, they symbolically all have a hand in murder.
Many Muslim women see the bullshit of this honor system early on because they realize it doesn’t benefit them. Other women, and sometimes the same women who are aware of how the honor system works, either for the sake of survival or just wanting to be thought highly of from men, adopt men’s ideology of honor and control, and oppress each other. Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is a loud example of what Muslim women do in some cultures to abuse and oppress each other, they know it’s wrong but, I believe some are truly brainwashed into thinking that this is the type of “purity” that Allah wants, but in reality it’s just a way of control that men instilled on women so that they could get out of that responsibility when they get called out on it, saying blame the women for doing it and not them. Each of these women have a thick belt leashed around their necks that’s loosened as they play along.
The news about this young girl’s death was particularly surprising because it happened in America, not somewhere in the Middle East. Although it’s not common in the US, on occasion I would still hear these types of stories about women being taken back to the Middle East or other Asian countries to meet such a fate. Overall, there isn’t such a strong societal pressure from the Arab community for honor to be restored by taking someone’s life in America, being disowned was more of a typical result. My father was abusive in many ways, most of his threats were more like empty promises that no one wanted kept anyways.
My queer sexuality wove its way into my actions and lead me to rebel against being the keeper of my father’s honor. When a Middle Eastern woman, especially brought up in Islam, expresses herself through her sexuality, she’s viewed as a stain on honor, and my forwardness about queer identity drenched it. Before reaching to that point, there was a long period in my life where I repressed myself because I was too busy with the face of my family’s reputation. The thought of dishonoring my family was terrifying, and because of possible consequences, past threats and experiences, I tried to become a better Muslim the way my father envisioned. It included wearing the hijab and almost never missing a prayer just like my mother. It felt like I was living multiple lives, one where I was more religious by “praying the gay away,” another was researching sites that offered to match gay and lesbian Muslims for a convenient marriage, and last was working on a hidden agenda on figuring out an escape. Eventually this masquerade became tiring and the way that I identified made me question my culture and saw the faults with my religion even more, although it was always in my subconscious.
My first act of rebellion was taking off the hijab, I wanted to get rid of the visual representation of someone else’s honor. What Baba loved the most was having a well-known reputation, and having educated daughters was something he liked to brag about. After a couple years of commuting to college, and letting my grades “slip.” I took notice of other Muslim women who lived on campus and used them as an example as a reason to leave – to my surprise, I was actually able to convince my father to let me move to school as long as I promised that I would move back after graduating. I never went back. It took me years to plan a move as simple as that, but knowing how my father is, it was a considerable success. “Coming out” to my parents wasn’t part of the plan yet, I wanted to move out and experience what it was like to an independent adult. It wasn’t until a few years later that my parents found out about my sexuality and some of those consequences that I feared did happen, I was disowned and threatened, and my parents stopped talking to me for years. While I missed being able to visit or talk to my younger siblings, what I don’t miss is the weight of my father’s honor on my shoulders.
At the age of 27, I’m gaining the courage to celebrate my own liberation. Earlier, I mentioned, how in order for my father to celebrate his freedom he had to gain control of mine. I realized that I never gave him freedom, he just assumed it, and I also recognized that my own will and desires to escape from being under his control were stronger than his control issues. Knowing how to play Baba’s game early on, I made sure to appease him and kept myself under the radar while I worked on my agenda. My identity as a whole was an act of silent rebellion after becoming fully aware of what I meant to him, and no longer wanting to be imprisoned by any Muslim man’s ideals of honor and religion. Baba keeps quiet about my sexual identity, and makes up excuses to people on why his unwed daughter isn’t at home because he doesn’t want to face ridicule. I celebrate the fact that I disrupted at least one man’s code of honor, and seeing that the ball was in my court the whole time - I gained back my freedom, and ended up taking some of his.
K. A. was born in Amman, Jordan to Arab parents from Palestine, and now lives in Chicago. She is an activist for Palestinian liberation, writer, and keffiah enthusiast. K. A. is an anti-Sharia Law rebel, and challenges the patriarchal Sharia court by teaching women sword fighting and lets them use pictures of the Sharia council members as targets.
As one of the authors on The PanWomanist, I have chosen anonymity with a pseudonym due to safety concerns caused by direct threats of attack, and religious and cultural implications. My story touches on my truth with Islam. As a woman, my words goes against what Islam considers “good moral standing” and consists of breaking tradition by describing my warped relationship with my father and the corrupt honor system of which he lives by.
The honor system has an ugly grip on women and girls, but the hand that impacts them belongs to their fathers, brothers, sons, and any male relatives. I hope that this story reaches oppressed women and gives them something to relate to, and may even help them gain the courage to escape or even break the grasp that holds them.