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‘What Do Spirituality and Happiness Look Like for a Muslim Feminist?’

When misogyny’s toll weighs me down spiritually, making it difficult to hold onto my faith, Ramadan renews my strength.

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Inside the mosque adjacent the mall, the musky scent of bukhoor enveloped me. It smelled like somewhere far away, a long-lost home beckoning for me to return. I placed my head on the prayer rug and wept. I couldn’t remember the last time I had been in a mosque, the last time I had felt the internal peace I felt at that moment. It was the month of Ramadan in 2019. I was quiet enough to hear the voices stifled beneath the noisy world. The atmosphere of the mosque steadied me, provided me with a cushion to keep holding onto my faith in a world that tries to snatch it away from me.

Growing up, I would wake up to the clashing sound of pots and pans emanating from the kitchen. The women in our home would busy themselves in preparing the predawn meal, sweat dripping from their bodies as they pounded yams and cooked soups. The men in our home would sit in the prayer room observing Tahajjud, the mid-night prayers, and reciting the Quran. I remember my 8-year-old self climbing the ladder down from my bunk on one such day and tiptoeing into the kitchen. “Why are you not saying the prayers?” I asked my mother. “Because we have to prepare suhur for the men in the house,” she said to me. Weary from having to do a lot of work, the women in our home were starved of the beauty of spirituality in Ramadan.

This would cause me to ask several questions as the years passed. But most of all, I wanted to know if God truly created women to serve men. Having observed the women in my home and those in the wider Muslim community, it appeared to me that women had to endure all forms of oppression and violence. I felt it was the norm for women to be denied basic human rights and to be enslaved all through their lives. But what disturbed me the most was that I didn’t feel God’s sense of justice in it all.

“The earlier you come to terms with it, the better for you,” my aunties would tell me. As a child, I wasn’t supposed to question things. I just had to accept it. But the harder I tried at becoming “a woman,” the harder I failed.

In my mid-teenage years, the voices that battled inside me would refuse to be silenced. They became my tormentors. I became terrified at the thought of becoming a woman. I remember my stomach churning at the mention of it; the harrowing voices in my head telling me I was going to fail at womanhood; that I wasn’t going to live up to society’s expectations of who I should be. It didn’t help that the sheikhs in our mosques reminded women of their “place.”

It wasn’t until my early 20s, when I embarked upon a journey of personal research, that I found out that in many Muslim communities, religion was being manipulated to women’s disadvantage. I discovered that Islam in theory was almost completely different from what obtained in practice. Was I going to remain silent after coming to this realization?

My journey would be a complicated one. I would be labeled, cussed and cast aside for being the woman who isn’t humble enough to be silent about her rights. My heart would feel torn apart: voice, sound and soul in complete chaos. I would grimly tolerate the hateful comments of fellow Muslims as I tried to reason the unbearable burning that comes with giving up my human rights just to be a Muslim woman. I would clamp my mouth shut and suppress many thoughts. And I would find myself asking: What do spirituality and happiness look like for a Muslim feminist?

On that warm evening in 2019, as I placed my head on the prayer rug at the mosque adjacent the mall, grappling with the grim realities of activist burnout and crying my heart out for peace to envelop me, I realized that part of my healing would come directly from my fight for equality. I was going to reclaim my right to experience full spirituality in Ramadan. I would refuse to walk the path of the women who spent their days and nights cooking and working around the house. I would stand for the night prayers without feeling pressured to serve the people in the house.

That very year, I took a break from work and disconnected from the online world. I spent the month reflecting, meditating and wandering into the spiritual realm. Through fasting and through reading I became closer to God and closer to the Prophet’s (PBUH) message of equality and justice. Ramadan inspired and fueled my activism — my self-led campaign to help Muslim women use their voices against all forms of subordination and oppression. From waking up to perform wudhu to observing the night prayers and mindfully chanting words of remembrance, I became cleansed of negativity, fear and the drama of the world.

After that Ramadan, I realized that all I needed to forge ahead was to carve out a space to reflect and heal. Ramadan has since offered me that space so that I could come back healthier and more whole. It’s hard to keep the faith in the face of everything going on in the world. But as I forge ahead, I carry along the words of poet Della Hicks-Wilson: “Darling, you feel heavy because you’re too full of truth. Open your mouth more. Let your truths exist somewhere other than inside your body."