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 A Muslim Woman’s Faith Journey from Struggle to Struggle


Riffat Hassan, Ph.D.


[Dr. Riffat Hassan  is a member of the Islamic Research Foundation International and is an award winning scholar, an inimitable voice for moderate  Islam & interreligous dialogue and Professor for Religious Studies and Humanities at the University of Louisville, Louisville, KY. In February 1999, she  founded The International Network for the Rights of Female Victims of Violence in Pakistan (INRFVVP), a non-profit organization with a worldwide membership, which has played a noteworthy role in highlighting the issue of violence against girls and women, particularly with reference to “crimes of honor”  (website: ; E-mail:]



"We want you to be the ideologue of our movement.  " The earnest faces looking at me out of a world unutterably grim and dark ... the earnest voices speaking to me in the deathly stillness of an hour of despair when one is afraid to hear even the throbbing of one's own heart.... I saw and heard the angry, tearful, fearful, defiant, despairing, determined, struggling, suffering women from one of the most active women's groups in my native Pakistan, and was spellbound ... overwhelmed ... transformed.  In that moment of truth I knew with absolute clarity that I had arrived at a point of destiny ... it seemed natural—inevitable—that the strange paths I had trodden in my life should have led me here, though I had never dreamed that I would be called upon so suddenly—so unexpectedly—to become the theoretician for a movement involved in a life-and-death struggle in a country that was mine by birth and unbreakable bonds of love, from which I had chosen to exile myself in order to be able to do my life's work.  For years I had lived a hard and solitary life in an alien world, striving to become free and whole—returning periodically to my "homeland" only to find how alienated I was from "my people" in so many ways.  Even as I saw and heard the women who wanted me to dedicate myself to their struggle for self-identification, for self-preservation, I knew how many worlds separated us.  The mere fact that I lived alone with my young daughter, in a foreign land, earning my livelihood by the sweat of my brow, using every free moment of my work-filled life to pore endlessly over words, sacred and secular, to find a way to liberate millions of Muslim women from the unspeakable bondage imposed on them in the name of God, created a wide gulf between me and these women who addressed me.


* Jihād fī Sabīl Allah: striving or exerting in and for the cause of God; this is a Qur'anic imperative for all Muslims.



Would any of these women be willing to give up their lives of affluence and ease to share a day of my toil-filled life?  I would have been surprised to find even one who would—and this thought saddened me.  However, it did not affect my deep response to the call I had received.  Whatever the distances, the differences that existed between these women and me, I knew in the hour of trial that they were my sisters and that our bond was indissoluble.  I was grateful that the work I had done over so many years out of my own passionate quest for truth and justice had become profoundly relevant to the lives of my sisters.  I had not hoped to see this day in my lifetime.  With a heart full of tears of joy, of sorrow—I said a silent prayer to my Creator and Sustainer who had brought me to this historic moment.  I offered thanks for the opportunity to participate in such a moment and asked for strength and courage so that I might not fail in the critical task entrusted to me.


 As I stood on the threshold of a new beginning, a new life, scenes from my past flashed before my eyes.  I paused—to cast a look backward at the passages through which my life-journey had led me to bring me to this point of destiny.  I knew that tomorrow would usher in a new phase of toil and tribulation and that then there would be no time to look back.  But today I could be alone with my memories of places and peoples and moments that had made my life-journey significant.  I did not like to recall many of these memories for they are painful, but I knew that in order for me to have a clear sense of where I was and where I was to go in terms of my inner journey, I had to remember where I had been.  I do not believe that it is possible to go forward without going backward, since our future is born out of our past.  I closed my eyes and went back to the old house where I was born, which stood at the end of a galee (narrow street) adjoining Temple Road in the ancient city of Lahore in what is now Pakistan.  In this house my story had begun.


      My memories of the house in which I was born, where I spent the first seventeen years of my life, are heavily shaded with darkness.  Even now I cannot read a passage about the joy, the beauty, the golden sunshine of childhood years without a storm of tears arising in my heart.  I wish I had had a different childhood ... my own was a nightmare that has never ceased to haunt me.  What I remember most distinctly about being a child was how utterly lonely I felt in a house full of people and how unspeakably unhappy, scared, and bewildered I was most of the time.


     Objectively, there were many reasons why I should have considered myself and my five brothers and three sisters as very privileged children.  We were born into an upper class Saiyyad family, and the Saiyyads, being the descendants of the Holy Prophet Muhammad, are regarded as the highest caste of Muslims, even though Muslims constantly protest against the idea that Islam has any caste system!  My father and mother came from among the oldest and most distinguished families in the city and were both "good" parents in that they took care to provide us with a high quality of life.  We lived in a spacious kothee (bungalow) and had a glamorous automobile (when only a handful of people had any) and a household full of servants who performed all the domestic duties.  We went to the best English-medium schools (which to this day are regarded as status symbols), where we received a sound British education.  Children in our neighborhood envied us: we were the children of "Shaah Saahib," as everyone called my father, who was the patriarch of the area and greatly respected and liked by all; all considered it an honor to come to our house to play, even though they knew about my mother's temper-tantrums and the possibility that they might be told unceremoniously to go home at any moment.


     Why, when we were so blessed, was my life so full of shadows?  The major reason was undoubtedly the deep conflict between my parents.  Not only did they have diametrically opposing views on most matters but also radical incompatibility of temperament and character.  My father was very traditional in his ways and values.  Through most of my life I hated his traditionalism, because I understood it almost exclusively in terms of his belief in sex roles and his conviction that it was best for girls to be married at age sixteen to someone who had been picked out for them by the parents.  It took me a long time to see that in some ways my father's traditionalism had been pure gold.  He truly believed in taking care of disadvantaged people, relatives and strangers alike, and responding to every call he received for assistance.  He was genuinely kind and compassionate and took joy in solving other people's problems, whether they were personal, professional, or social.  Anybody could call on him at any hour, and he would receive the caller with courtesy and goodwill.  My mother's ways and values differed fundamentally from my father's, even though, in her own way, she responded positively to many who sought the assistance of the "Begum Saahiba," as she was called.  Her nonconformism to traditional Muslim culture consisted largely of her rejection of the hallowed cult of women's inferiority and submissiveness to men.  She herself was not submissive to her husband.  She treated her daughters better than her sons (with the exception of one favorite son) and believed that it was more important to educate daughters than sons because girls were born into Muslim societies with a tremendous handicap.  Pre-Islamic Arabs had buried their daughters alive because they had regarded daughters not only as economic liabilities but also as potential hazards to the honor of the men in the tribe.  Islam notwithstanding, the attitude of Muslims toward daughters has remained very similar to that of their nomadic forebears.  My mother's repudiation of the ideals and practices of patriarchal culture and her passionate commitment to the liberation of her daughters from the chardewari  (four walls) of the male-centered, male-dominated household put her into the category of radical feminists, which made her strangely out of place in my father's house and in the society in which we lived.


     Long before I began to understand the complexities and ambiguities of the Muslim value-system, I knew that my mother would not win in any popularity contest vis-a-vis my father.  She had a protected place in society because she was the daughter of the outstanding and creative artist-poet, playwright, and scholar, Hakim Ahmad Shuja'—who had also been a highly regarded educator and bureaucrat—and my father's wife, but in her own person she was viewed as a dangerous deviant.  The fact that she had a biting and brutal tongue, and that she could, at times, be ruthless and unscrupulous, did not help to improve her image in many eyes.  However, to me, all through my childhood, my mother was a savior-figure who protected me from being sacrificed upon the altar of blind conventionalism.  And my father, who was admired and loved by so many, seemed to me through most of my early life to be a figure of dread, representing customary morality in a society that demanded that female children be discriminated against from the moment of birth.


     As a child I used to be greatly troubled by the fact that my subjective perceptions of my parents differed greatly from the way in which others perceived them.  I remember feeling very guilty because I could not relate to my "good" father to whom almost everyone could relate so well.  I also remember feeling very angry and perplexed as to why my father, who liked everyone, seemed so averse to me.  I knew that what I perceived to be his negative attitude toward me had something to do with my being one of my mother's "favorites" and belonging to her "camp." Their respective camps were the centers from where my parents conducted their cold war campaigns that enveloped us all and poisoned our family life.  My parents did not yell and scream at each other.  My father was too much of a gentleman to do that, and even my mother, whom many regarded as a "shrew," was conventional enough not to engage in a vociferous exchange with my father.  But though physical and verbal violence did not characterize the relationship between my parents, there was no disguising the fact that they had deep-seated resentments against one another that manifested themselves in all kinds of destructive ways.  I remember how the way my parents interacted with one another reminded me of Milton's words: "For never can true reconcilement grow / where wounds of deadly hate have pierced so deep," and I often wondered as a child why they continued to live together.  Now I understand the reasons that made it imperative for them to live under one roof—they both came from "old" families to whom divorce was anathema, and they had nine children to raise.  But the one roof under which we all lived could not be called a "home," if one defines this term as a place of love, warmth, and security.  Our home was a rough sea where tempests raged incessantly.  I could only deal with the unremitting hostility that pervaded the atmosphere by becoming a recluse.  Before I was twelve years old I had retired from the world.


     I believe that it was because I withdrew from an outer to an inner reality that I was able to survive the seemingly unending crises and calamities to which I was exposed.  A hypersensitive, painfully shy, and profoundly lonely child, I hated the ugliness that surrounded me and retreated to a world made up of a child's prayers, dreams, and wishful thinking.  In this world I found three things that have sustained me through the heartbreaks and hardships of my life: an unwavering belief in a just and loving God, the art of writing poetry, and a deep love for books.  Unable to relate at a deep personal level to either of my two parents—such dialogue, I see now, is virtually impossible in Muslim culture, in which human beings relate to each other mainly in terms of their “functions” or roles and not in terms of who they are as persons—I learned to talk to my Creator and Preserver to reveal to me the purpose of my life and to help me fulfill this purpose.  Perhaps that was a strange prayer for a child.  However, I was not any child—I was a war-ravaged child.  Born female in a society in which it is customary to celebrate the birth of a son and to bemoan the birth of a daughter, and growing up in a house lacking in love and trust, I could at no time simply take it for granted that I had the right to exist, to be.  I had, at all times, to find a justification for living.  A very ailing child, I came quite close to dying a few times and almost wished that I were dead, but somewhere, deep within my heart and soul, I always had the assurance that God had a special purpose for my life that justified my existence, and that so long as I remained faithful to God I would be protected from the dangers and devastation that threatened me.


     Alone in my inner world I discovered that, like my mother and grandfather, I could write poetry almost effortlessly.  This gave me great happiness and hope.  I felt as if this was a gift from God given to me so that I could create a world free of shadows, of hate, bitterness and pain.  Looking at my first poem in  “My Maiden," a book of eighty-five sonnets written when I was about thirteen years old, I can recall the earnest child who wrote:


This humble work of mine do bless my God,

My fervent message to the world proclaim,

I do not covet wealth or power or fame,

I just want satisfaction for reward.

I felt it was Your Will that I should write

Of Beauty, Love and Joy, Eternal Peace,

Of Sorrow, Struggle that a Death does cease,

Of Hope, its sweet illuminating light.


I've done my duty with all faithfulness

I strove to do Your Will, without a rest,

I pray I have succeeded in this test,

If I have, I can scarce my joy express.

I am sincere that You, dear God, can see,

I'll do Your Will, however hard may be.


  How many worlds have passed away since I wrote that poem, but what I said in that poem still remains true for me.  I believed then, as I believe now, that God had chosen me to be an instrument in implementing a plan that I could see only in part and understand only dimly.  Since I first experienced the presence of God—powerful, healing, comforting, directing—in the solitude of my inner world, I have regarded my life as a trust that must be in jihād fī sabīl Allah (striving in the cause of Allah).  As a child, there were times when I wanted to share my strong sense of being a missionary for God with my close friends.  But I was afraid that they would not understand my calling and would ridicule meI remember that once, not without trepidation, I mentioned to a friend whom I considered to be wiser than the rest that I believed God spoke to me in special moments and showed me the path I was to follow.  I hoped that he would understand what I was trying to say, but he was shocked by what seemed to him to be pretentious words.  I remember how his words "So you consider yourself a prophetess or something!" went through my heart like a dagger and left me speechless.  After that I would not speak about what lay closest to my soul, though I would write when the burden of silence became too heavy to bear.  It was in one such hour that I wrote another sonnet—perhaps my favorite in the collection—which reads:


Oft times when loneliness I cannot bear,

When all my consolation, hope has fled,

In words when there is nothing to be said,

My feelings, then, with you—my pen—I share.

When I unburden all my heart to you,

Tell you the secrets of my restless mind,

When for my thoughts expression I do find

In verse, contentment—sweet and deep and true—

Steals on me, offers solace to my soul.

And though there still is grief, there still is strife,

I'm comforted; my poems do console

       Me; and I know as long as I can write

I'll have the will life's battle great to fight,

       For 'tis the truth—that writing is my life.


  Writing was my chief mode of communication during my childhood, and I wrote much.  By the time I was seventeen years old, two volumes of my poems, short stories, and articles had been published, and I was a well-known "budding" poet-author in the world in which I lived.  My famous grandfather spoke of me with pride and said that I alone among all his grandchildren had inherited his writing talent.  I felt grateful for his recognition and encouragement, but undoubtedly the person who meant the most to me during my early teens when I launched my writing career was my cousin "Sunny Bhaijan" (as I called him), who was married to my eldest sister.  Sunny Bhaijan was a remarkably talented person who could have become a first-rate poet, artist, or musician if he had had the passion to create.  But he lacked passion and thus was not motivated to develop his talents.  He recognized both my ability to write and my passion and became my first mentor.  Sadly, many things happened that caused me to grow away from Sunny Bhaijan while I was not yet out of my teens, but I still feet indebted to him for encouraging me to write.


  Besides writing, my greatest joy in life in childhood was reading.  One day, looking through a dusty bookcase in my house, I found a torn and tattered copy of Palgrave's "Golden Treasury" of poems.  Finding that book was one of the most important things that ever happened to me, for it introduced me to many poems I grew to love deeply, including some sonnets of Shakespeare.  I loved to recite poems to myself, over and over, till I knew them by heart.  There was something about the measured music of poetry that captivated my heart and spirit.  Though poetry was my first love, I also liked to read novels and read many "classics" by Dickens, Hardy, the Brontë sisters, Jane Austen, and many others.  Of all the novels that I read in my childhood, the one that made the greatest impact on me was Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights.  This book had a haunting quality, and it seemed suspended between the world of reality and the world of dream, nightmare, and fantasy.  The bleakness and wildness of its landscape seemed to correspond to my own psyche, and I identified with its strange characters, especially Cathy and Heathcliff.  Apart from my reading of English "classics," I was also an avid reader of Agatha Christie's books, from which I learned much about human nature.


 Most of my childhood I spent alone, writing and reading.  I do not remember studying much for school.  Despite that, I was the star pupil in my class from the beginning to the end of my scholastic career and won every honor and award there was to win.  Many people, including my classmates and their parents, were very impressed with my academic success and treated me as if I were rather special.  But as a child, and even as an adult, I did not crave success—perhaps because one does not crave what one does or can have.  What I craved was love and peace around me and within me.  I was a super-achiever almost against my will.  Toward the end of my high school career I became resentful of my own success and wanted to fail.  My family never seemed to notice my success, or at least never mentioned it to me—I thought that perhaps if I failed they would pay some attention to me.  Had it not been for a teacher who cared for me, I might have acted out my bitter, rebellious feelings, but I did not, and in future years was very grateful that I had not wrecked a record career.  I learned very early in life that there is no necessary connection between success and happiness, but I have also come to know that, though many bright women are afraid to succeed, lack of success is not likely to lead to an enhancement of happiness, and I could not have found what I craved through underachieving.


  The twelfth year of my life was a landmark year for me because during that year my struggle as an "activist feminist" began.  Up until that time I had been a quiet child living for the most part in an inner sanctuary.  But before I had turned twelve, all of a sudden the reality of the external world began to close in on me ominously, threatening to destroy my place of refuge.  My second sister, who was sixteen, was married off to a man with a lot of money and very little education.  She had tried to resist the arranged marriage but had succumbed, as most girls do, to the multifarious crude as well as subtle ways of "persuading" wavering girls to accept the arrangement in order to safeguard the family's "honor" and her own "happiness." Seeing her fall into the all-too-familiar trap I experienced total panic.  I was the next in line.  Four years later the same ritual would be reenacted, and this time I would be the sacrificial victim unless I found a way of averting the catastrophe.  I knew that my mother would try to protect me from an arranged marriage, but I was not sure that she would succeed.  I felt that I had to learn to fend for myself, to take a stand against my father and his rigid conventionalism.  I had to learn to fight to survive in a society in which women's refusal to submit to patriarchal authority is tantamount to heresy.  At twelve I had not learned how to fight.  I had not wanted to learn to fight.  I simply wanted to be left alone in my dream-world where I could write my poems and read my books ... but I knew then, as I know now, that if one is born female in such a society as the one I was born in and wants to be regarded as a person and not as an object, one has no option but to fight.  And so I learned to fight, and the fight continues to this day, though many battles have been won and lost.  Battle-weary, I pray for the dawning of the day when it will not be required of women like myself to spend their entire lifetime fighting for their freedom each day of their life, but I also pray for strength to continue the fight until there is justice and freedom, under God, for all my sisters.


  My father, who had not seemed to like me much when I was a little girl hiding in my room, liked me even less when I appeared to become an impossible teenage rebel who disregarded his wishes.  For instance, when I was twelve he wanted me to withdraw from the coeducation school where I studied and enroll in an all-girls' school.  Thinking with the mind of a twelve-year-old, I believed that if I said "yes" to him once, I would always have to say "yes" to him.  Therefore, I refused to comply with his desire and said that if I was forced to leave the school where I had studied for a number of years (and where my brothers still studied), I would not go to any other school.  My father did not force me to leave, but he upbraided my mother constantly for spoiling and misguiding me.  From the time that I was twelve until I went abroad to England at age seventeen, my father never stopped being upset with me over the fact that I studied with boys and played competitive table-tennis (of which I became a provincial champion) with them.  But he never reprimanded me directly—perhaps because during most of that time, he and I were not even on speaking terms with one another.  I learned through those tense, silence-filled years how dreadful cold war is, and how through the coldness of its silence it may inflict deeper injury than the angriest of words.  Looking back, I am stricken with sorrow that the world in which we lived made it impossible for my father and me to talk to one another through most of my life.  Perhaps if we could have communicated directly we could have resolved some of our differences, or even learned to build a personal relationship with one another; but in Muslim societies fathers and daughters seldom talk to one another as peers or persons until the daughters have left the fathers' household and become part of another household.  I who have been looking for a father all my life never knew my own until the last year of his life, when he had become a weak and ailing human being who cried to see his children come and cried to see them go.  Not until then did I know for sure that he cared about me and wanted to see me happy, regardless of how he had disapproved of me through my growing years.  We had so little time to get to know each other, but I am grateful that I was reconciled to him before he died.  Such reconciliation does not, and cannot, of course, make up for a lifetime of deprivation, but at least it makes it possible for me to weep for my father and for what we missed.


  While being alienated from my father left a deep imprint on my life, my intense and strange relationship with my mother left an even deeper one.  For much of my life my mother was the most important person in my life.  Feeling as I did that I lived in an arena of gladiators, I regarded my mother as my sole protector after God, and depended upon her for my emotional survival.  Certainly my mother gave me much.  She provided me not only with the best kind of education but also with the opportunity to become a "person." Considering marriage to be a necessary evil rather than an ideal state, my mother did not raise her daughters to conform to the very rigid, well-defined norms prescribed for female behavior and accomplishments in Muslim culture.  She wanted her daughters to have what she herself had never had—a chance to be properly educated, to see the world, to experience freedom, to become self-sufficient, successful, and powerful.


  Perhaps my particular tragedy lay in the fact that my mother regarded me as her Derby-winning horse who would actualize all her dreams of glory.  My mother perceived me as the most gifted and single-minded of her children and believed that I had what it took to do what she had wanted to do in her life.  She told me over and over, from a time when I was very young, that I was to become famous like Florence Nightingale and Joan of Arc.  She did not want me ever to think of marriage, since marriage was bondage and a grave impediment to growth and advancement.  For me the sky was the limit, provided I was strong and unwavering in the pursuit of my goals and sought always to be a winner.


  Much of what I am today is due to my mother's meticulous schooling, but I could never become the ruthless superwoman she wanted me to be.  Even as a child I could not accept the way she discriminated against many people, including some of her own children.  My earliest battle with her was over my three younger brothers, whom she frequently treated unjustly and unkindly.  I protested in their behalf, and in behalf of the other "disadvantaged" persons, like domestic servants, whom my mother mistreated.  Strangely enough she did not mind my protesting—in fact, she was rather amused by it and called me "leader of the opposition." Perhaps she did not mind my taking a stand against her because she liked to see me fight, even though it was against her.  But my efforts to make her review her own conduct never worked.  She lived, and still lives, in a world dominated by the idea of will-to-power.


     While my mother wanted me to succeed, she never patted me on the back for doing well.  I know that she was proud of my achievements because she told others about them, but I did not hear her tell me that she loved me.  In my society there were many stories of how a mother's love was superior to all other kinds of love because it was "unconditional." I wanted so much to believe that, but I could not, since I heard my mother say repeatedly to me: "I do not love you, I love your qualities." Her words, which were meant to affirm my "qualities," made me feel very lonely and sad.  I could not receive my mother's love simply because I was her child.  I could receive her approval only if I proved myself worthy.  I recall that as a child my mother's attitude toward me often made me very melancholy, but that as an adolescent it made me very angry.  Part of this anger, which stayed with me for a long time, was directed at myself because I could not break loose of my mother's control over me.  Regardless of how strongly I wished to resist her emotional manipulation, when confronted by her immensely powerful personality I felt myself relapsing into a state of juvenile behavior when I reacted to her instead of acting as an autonomous person.  It took some devastating experiences to finally sever the chains that bound the little girl in me to my mother's power and make me free of the burden of living out her fantasies instead of living my own life.  Free of the bondage, I have sought to reestablish the bond.  I still find it very difficult to "dialogue" with my mother, and my feelings toward her remain ambivalent, but I feel a strong sense of duty toward her.  My mother not only gave me life but also the strength required to live the kind of life I wanted to live, and for that I owe her more than I can give.  With her egocentricity and eccentricity, my mother's indomitable spirit, reflected in her steadfastness of purpose, courage, and refusal to give up in the face of insuperable odds, makes her the most extraordinary woman I have ever known, and despite all the heartache and agony she has caused me, I am proud of the fact that I am my mother's daughter.


  Returning to my parents' conflict over me, I remember how tense things became as I approached my sixteenth year, For me my sixteenth birthday had nothing to do with "sweet sixteen," it was D-Day.  My father wanted to see me married by then, but he had not found a way to arrange this marriage.  He and I were not on speaking terms, and my mother would not hear of my marriage.  My father was displeased and troubled about the situation.  Another year passed, and the conflict seemed to intensify.  My increasing independence of thought and action seemed to threaten my father's notion of family "honor." At the same time he recognized that I had brought much "honor" to my family by my academic successes, especially by standing first among the 24,000 students in the whole province in the intermediate examination.


  Terrified lest I fall somehow into the death trap of an arranged marriage, I wanted desperately to escape from the danger that stalked me.  My eldest sister had gone to England on a scholarship, and I asked her to secure admission for me in her college.  She did so.  I expected my father to oppose the idea of my studying abroad, but he permitted me to go.  Perhaps by this time he had begun to feel that I deserved to have the opportunity to study abroad.  Perhaps he also hoped that once I left home I would be out of my mother's sphere of influence and he would have greater access to meHe never told me his reasons for letting me go, but he spoke to me after a number of years on the day on which my brother and I set out for England with my mother.  I wept as he embraced me and felt the pain of saying good-bye to him.  In that moment of farewell he was simply my father and not "the adversary."


My seven years at St. Mary's college, University of Durham, in England, were full of homesickness and hard studying.  After three years I graduated with joint honors in English literature and philosophy, and then, at age 24, 1 became a Doctor of Philosophy specializing in the philosophy of Allama Muhammad Iqbal, the national poet-philosopher of Pakistan, whose work I had loved and admired since childhood.  During my years in England, I did, in fact, grow closer to my father and more distant from my mother (who never liked the idea of my being on good terms with my father), but when I returned home after finishing my studies abroad, I found that I was alienated from them both in fundamental ways.  I could conform neither to my father's norms nor to my mother's values.  Since I was no longer a child, I did not experience a child's fears, but I felt unutterably, unbearably alone.  Coming home after seven long years of exile, I was again an outcast, an outsider.


     It was in that state that I decided to marry a man who seemed to need me intensely.  Always having had a great need not only to receive love but also to give it, for me the heaviest part of the price I paid for being a rebel against patriarchal society was that I did not feel free to express the love I felt for my own family members.  A rebel's gifts are not accepted, and no one seemed to need my love.  But Dawar needed it, and for years I gave it to him—unconditionally, unreservedly.  My family was not thrilled with the idea of my marrying an "unmade" man, but they did not oppose it. Perhaps they had learned from experience that opposition did not deter me; perhaps they were glad that finally I had agreed to be married at all.  Anyhow, as I began my married life I was aware of the social problems my husband and I would encounter on account of the fact that I was more educated than he and had better wage-earning prospects.  These were serious matters in a society in which the man must always be seen to be in control and ahead of the woman, but in my joy at having found what I had always craved I did not pay much thought to them.  For me, love was God's greatest gift, a miracle in a world of hate, and I believed that it could accomplish anything and overcome any difficulty. In Dawar’s eyes I saw what I had never had—the promise of sustaining love—and overwhelmed, I wrote:


Beautiful, beautiful eyes

beautiful as the myriad-tinted sun

lighting upon the golden leaves of autumn

          which fall like rain upon the dark, deep waters

          of Wear, which guards the cobbled streets and spirits

          of an ancient, distant town.


A stone-and-concrete wall.

A wall of murky hate

A hate born out of fear

a fear born out of knowledge

that the spirit too

will rot beneath the burden

of the tainted flesh.

         All around a wall

  to hide the helpless anger

  of sin-infected cowardice

  and knowing, growing shame.

  All around a wall

which in the end must win

crowding out the light

crowding out the life

in an eternal gloom.


The soul is sick with sorrow

for the wall is everywhere. 

But looking through the mist

of doubt and hurt and sadness

soft with tender caring

knowing and understanding

holding out a strength

that keeps the heart from breaking

are the beautiful eyes,

the beautiful, beautiful eyes.


My dream of love on which I thought our marriage was based was beautiful, no doubt, but it turned out to be a dream.  Dawar was a typical product—victim—of the patriarchal society and had a compelling need to be the "head" of the family.  He found it impossible to fulfill this need being married to a woman who was a superachiever, while he regarded himself as a loser.  He was attracted by my strength but resented it at the same time.  He wanted to utilize my talents but also to deny them.  I tried to be a "good" wife, exemplifying the rebel's hidden desire to conform to tradition.  For what seemed like a long time I was the model wife, selflessly devoted to her husband, living only for him and through him, but all my efforts to build up his confidence in himself only made him more conscious of what he lacked.  A highly introverted person, he became even more withdrawn from life.  I thought that perhaps if we left our complex-ridden, male-chauvinistic society and moved to a place where men were not under so much pressure to prove their superiority to women, our marriage would have a better chance of succeeding.  We did, indeed, leave Pakistan and came to the United States, but the pattern of our relationship had already been set and it did not change.  When I had married Dawar I had not known him well, but more importantly, I had not known myself well.  Like many women through the ages I had thought that it was enough to give love without asking for anything in return, but I found out, after five years of constant giving, that I had nothing left to give.  I was a hollow woman living in a wasteland.  Never had my life seemed more empty, barren, or full of unspoken anguish.  The times prior to my second exodus from my homeland (the first one having been for studying) and those which followed it were, in many ways, the darkest ones of my life.  Much happened then that scarred me forever.


For me the decision to migrate from the land of my birth to a land I had never seen was one of the most difficult and heartbreaking decisions I have ever had to make.  Through all the years that I had lived in England I had literally counted the days until my return to my beloved country.  To serve "my people" had been a dream I had cherished since childhood.  It is hard to describe the full measure of the disillusionment I suffered when I returned to my homeland and discovered that "my people" were enslaved by a corrupt government and that I could not live and work in my own country unless I was willing to renounce the ideals I most cherished.  Torn as I was between love of my people and my commitment to God to work for truth and justice, I might have lingered in indecision had I not witnessed the dismemberment of Pakistan from very close quarters.  As deputy director in the "brain-cell" of the federal information ministry, I had reason to believe that the tragedy that occurred could have been averted if the people in power had loved the country enough to let go of their own power fantasies.  Traumatized by what I saw, I knew that the time for hijrah1 had come, for my homeland had become the territory of the godless.  Facing this truth with an exceedingly heavy heart, I wrote:


Who knows what lies ahead?

Upon the vast, impenetrable brink

of that which we call Future, lost and scared

I stand tormented.

Pain, the gnawing pain

beneath whose weight the spirit wilts away

of making the irrevocable choice.

"To be or not to be," unhappy question

that ever—till the end—must vex our kind. 

Can one forfeit one's dreams just to be safe—

safe from the agony of mystic quest? 

Or must one, like one banished, leave behind

so much that is one's own, to start anew

somewhere where one can learn to dream again? 

A cruel choice—but one which must be made

before the desperate strength of fading courage

dies 'mid the tyranny of conventional ways—

A cruel choice—but one which has been made—

God take care of the rest.


     God did, indeed, take care of providing for us as we set out to build a new life in the United States, but soon after our arrival I received news from home that shook the roots of my being.  My younger brother Vicky, the closest to me of all my family and the only one who was always on my side, was dying of cancer.  Wild with grief I went back to Lahore to be with him even though I was pregnant and very unwell.  My memories of the following months are still so shrouded with pain that I cannot dwell upon them.  Seeing my beloved brother waste away in the prime of a glorious youth was the hardest thing I had ever had to bear.  In the midst of this overpowering sorrow another devastating blow fell upon us: my eldest brother, the guardian of my father's home and the most caring of all my family, died of a heart attack at the age of thirty-seven.  I was not with my brothers when they died and could not participate in their funeral rites, but with them a part of me also died.  What remained alive was emotionally paralyzed for a long time when my only reason for living was my little daughter, who was born as all the skies were falling on my head.  For me, my little Mona, as I call her, has always been a miracle of God's grace, a gift given to me to keep me alive.  When I named her Mehrunnisa2 I did not know that she would live up to her name, but she is, indeed, a child with a heart so full of love and sunshine that she makes me forget the sorrows of my life.  Like all mothers I want my child to have a safe and happy passage through life, but I also tell her that she must understand what it means to be Mujāhida3, which is her second name.  I tell her that jihād fī sabīl Allah is the essence of being a Muslim and that I want her to commit her life to striving for truth and justice. I tell her that though she has herself known no discrimination, she must not become immune to the suffering of millions of Muslim girls who are discriminated against from the moment of birth.  I tell her that my prayer for her is that she should be strong enough to be a mujahida in the long struggle that lies ahead of us and to continue the efforts of her mother and grandmother.


In the last decade and a half of my life there have been other events and mishaps that have affected me significantly.  Perhaps the most memorable of the mishaps was my extremely short-lived marriage to Mahmoud, an Egyptian Arab Muslim more than thirty years my senior in age, who persuaded me to marry him after I had known him only a few days, saying that he would take care of me and my child, and help me develop my talents in order to serve God better.  Emotionally wrecked by the death of my brothers and the end of a marriage in, which I had invested so much care, and frightened of living alone with a young child in an alien world, I was mesmerized by Mahmoud's powerful personality and believed him when he said that as a member of the Muslim Brotherhood movement in Egypt, he had suffered imprisonment and torture for the sake of God.  Mahmoud called himself a man of God, but I learned very quickly that being a man of God had nothing to do with being kind and compassionate and loving.  It meant only that Mahmoud could command me to do whatever he wished in the name of God and with the authority of God, and I had no right to refuse, since in Islamic culture refusal to do what is pleasing to the husband is tantamount to refusing to do what is pleasing to God.  Short as the marriage was, I came near to total destruction, physically and mentally, at the hands of a man who was not only a male chauvinist par excellence but also a fanatic who could invoke the holy name of God in perpetrating acts of incredible cruelty and callousness upon other human beings.  Had I not had a lifetime of struggle for survival behind me and a total faith that God was just and merciful, I could not have survived the three months I spent with Mahmoud or the three years I spent fighting the lawsuits in which he involved me in order to punish me for taking a stand against him.  He ruined me financially and did serious damage to me in many ways.  However, as good and evil are inextricably linked together in human life, I am grateful even for this soul-searing experience, for it was this experience more than any other that made me a feminist with a resolve to develop feminist theology in the framework of Islamic tradition so that other so-called men of God could not exploit other Muslim women in the name of God.


     While my personal life has been filled with momentous crises and upheavals throughout the years I have lived in this country, by the grace of God I have done well professionally.  I am now a professor and chairperson of the Religious Studies Program at the University of Louisville.  My specialization is in the area of Islamic Studies, and it was due to this expertise that I became involved in various ways, and at various levels, in the discussions going on around the country regarding Islam, after the Arab oil embargo of 1973 and the Iranian revolution of 1979 convinced the Western world that Islam was a living reality in the world.  While I found many of these discussions, in which I was called upon to explain "Islamic revival" to Americans, interesting and stimulating, it was in another setting—that of inter-religious dialogue among believers in the one God—that I found the community of faith I had sought all my life.  In this community of faith I have found others who, like myself, are committed to creating a new world in which human beings will not brutalize or victimize one another in the name of God, but will affirm, through word and action, that as God is just and loving so human beings must treat each other with justice and love regardless of sex, creed, or color.  I have found in my community of faith what I did not find in my community of birth: the possibility of growing and healing, of becoming integrated and whole.  Due to the affirmation I have received from men and women of faith I am no longer the fragmented, mutilated woman that I once was.  I know now that I am not alone in the wilderness, that there are some people in the world who understand my calling, and that their prayers are with me as I continue my struggle on behalf of the millions of nameless, voiceless, faceless Muslim women of the world who live and die unsung, un-celebrated in birth, unmourned in death.


God willing, my book Equal before Allah?, the first feminist theological study of the issue of woman-man equality in the context of creation, discussed in the light of the Qur'an and the most authoritative Hadith, will soon be published.  This book will present compelling arguments for affirming that God created man and woman equal, hence the inequality that exists between men and women in all Muslim societies is not God-made, but men-made, and essentially unjust.  It is my hope that this book will give the activist feminists struggling against religious oppression and authoritarianism in Muslim societies something to fight with.  It is my prayer that it will motivate some other Muslim women to join hands with me in preparing for the next round of the battle, which is bound to begin as soon as we have won the first.


And in the end, I send to all my sisters, all the women in the world, a gift of song, a poem born out of death-like experience that epitomizes the journey I have described in the foregoing narrative:


            I am a woman

     with the eternal heart

of a woman

who, like Othello,

loved not wisely

but too well.


            I am a woman

with the eternal heart

of a woman

living in a world

in which the rules

are made by men—

and where men can

break all the rules

and yet be gods

saviors and saints

martyrs and heroes

but where if women

break the rules

made by men

broken by men

they cannot live

without being shamed

slandered and abused

beaten and hurt

scourged and stoned

burned and buried

alive and damned.


            I am a woman

with the eternal heart

of a woman

born to love

living in a world

in which when men

love—they are called

princes and knights

poets and mystics

or at the worst


but when women love

then love becomes

a mortal sin

for which they must

give up their life—

for when a woman is

guilty of a mortal sin

—the sin of loving—

then she must die

so that the jealous

god of love

may be at peace.


I am a woman

with the eternal heart

of a woman

living in a world

in which there are

a number of men

and also some women

who cannot love;

and since love is

what makes us human

and gives us life

these men and women

are callous and cold,

cruel and cowardly

though they wear

the masks of sages

and madonnas

and cherubs;

and they are always

ready to strike

my eternal heart

because I dare

to live and love.


I am a woman

 with the eternal heart

 of a woman

 who has endured

 so many births

 and so many deaths

 so that the seed

 of life and love

 may not be

 destroyed by those

 who in the name

 of god of love

 who does not love

 want to create

 a loveless world

 a lifeless world

 full of tombs

 where one cannot hear

 the sound of life—

 the laughter of

 a little child

 warm from the womb

 who wants to live

 and wants to love

 and to whom

 an eternal-hearted woman

 is what god should be.


I am a woman

with the eternal heart

of a woman

the bearer of life

the nurturer of life

the protector of life

I can give life

because I am not

afraid of pain

for I know that love

is always pain

even joyful love

is ringed with pain

and no one can love

who cannot embrace

with heart and soul

the pain of living

the pain of loving.


I am a woman

with the eternal heart

of a woman

and I can suffer

again and again

the pain of loving

men and women

who do not love

who will tear

my heart and soul

to little shreds

and who will put

my life-carrying body

upon death's bed

in order to

placate a god

who says he is

the god of love

but who abhors

both life and love

and who demands

a sacrifice

—my sacrifice—

and says that I

must slaughtered be

just like an animal

helpless and trapped

whose blood is spilled

so that the sins

of those who kill

may be forgiven.


I am a woman

with the eternal heart

of a woman

and though I may be

tormented and abandoned

dishonored and disowned

scourged and flogged

stoned and burned

and buried alive

I will never

be a martyr

I will never

be a victim

I will never

be a loser

I will always

be a survivor

I will always

be a winner

I will always

be triumphant

for though I go

I will return

and though I die

I will live again

forever and forever

for I am a woman

with the eternal heart

of a woman

and since my heart

is made of love

and love is eternal

embodied in creation

leading to resurrection

though all else will burn

with the funeral pyre

in the flames of the fire

my eternal heart

will never to ashes turn

and like a phoenix I will rise again

and like a phoenix I will be reborn.






1.       Hijrah: emigration; in the Islamic tradition this term has particular reference to the emigration in 632 A.D. of the Prophet Muhammad from his hometown Mecca, which was controlled by polytheist Arabs, to Medina, where he established the first Muslim community.

2.    Mehrunnisa: symbol of Mehr (meaning "sun" and "love") among women.

3.    Mujāhida: a girl or woman who engages in jihad (striving).

4.    Qur'an: the primary source of Islam, believed by Muslims to be the word of God

conveyed by the angel Gabriel to the Prophet Muhammad, who transmitted it to the first Muslims without change or error.

5.    Hadith: oral traditions attributed to the Prophet Muhammad.

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