Transposing emblem by Rayan Harake
When I was about nine years old, my little sister and I would always go out with my father when he went to shop at the supermarket. On one of those days, my shoelaces came untied. I didn’t know how to retie them. Growing up, almost everything I needed was done by someone else.
A few days before that, the same thing had happened. We were out on a visit with my mother, and my father insisted that I was old enough to tie my shoelaces by myself. I didn’t know how, so I went to my mother (without him seeing it) and she tied them for me. Learning how to do it by myself seemed like a hard task, and my mother didn’t insist on teaching me.
However, in the supermarket, my mother was not around. I had to ask him to tie them for me. He became furious. He insisted that I knew how, and in his usual offensive manner, he told me I was lying. He ordered me to sit in one of the corners and retie my shoelaces – he was going to continue shopping with my sister and would then come back to make sure I had tied them.
I started crying. He came back a few times, found I hadn’t tied them yet, and insulted me. He even held me by the ear. Even though my father was mentally abusive, he never physically harmed us. I felt extremely humiliated.
Other customers passing by my corner may have wondered why there is a girl crying on the ground. But I was an insecure child and would think that the customers were mocking me inside their heads – that they thought I deserved this. Eventually I bound my shoelaces in something that resembled a tie, and my father – maybe out of frustration – accepted it.
Growing up with a mentally ill parent brought me a life full of extremes. It didn’t help that my father was a “religious” man. He understood his role in the family to be very patriarchal, and this only accentuated his controlling personality disorder.
My father was drawn into religion as a young man – the school of religion that was popular back in his day. He travelled to a western country carrying that limited worldview, and as ways of practicing changed and progressed back home, he kept clinging to what he thought was the “right” Islam. It was a shock for me, after I moved to my homeland, to see kids having birthdays. This was supposed to be “Haram” – but people here would nowadays find this label to be backward.
Back where I grew up, the slightest mixing with others was frowned upon. “They” had a different lifestyle and I was supposed to stick to my Islamic identity. The Islamic identity often meant that I couldn’t do what most of the other kids were doing. It meant I couldn’t be girly, or have lipstick or nail polish or Barbies.
I was living in a world of extremes. I had to try and find a balance between what I wanted to do and what my father wanted me to do (but I often only did the latter). I had to try to be as submissive as I could to avoid trouble, while at the same time trying to make sense of my father’s illogical treatment. I had to learn to make sense of my feelings when my father would be very proud and encouraging, only to insult me a while later for the smallest mistake.
I had to learn to live with a continuous feeling of worry – for my slightest actions and words could be held against me.
He did have his nice moments though. He played with us – his children – a lot. He would tell us stories he invented and he would put in our additions as he went along. His controlling behavior was present all the time, but he could be kind and encouraging. It depended very much on his mood swings. He definitely loved us, though he never learned how to be a good parent (or a good person overall), and was mostly not aware of the damage he was causing.
My mother on the other hand was a very submissive person. Having a weak personality, she was quickly defeated by my father, and lived a life of silent suffering. She was around all the time, but her presence didn’t mean much. Even in the few instances where she would try to stand up for us when we were being verbally abused, she would be quickly shushed and told it is none of her business.
I grew up to be religious myself, but certainly in a different manner. I can sometimes see myself holding contradictory ideas, or trying to make sense of theories that seem to lie on extremes. Is being Muslim the very opposite of being a feminist? Do I even agree with most of what feminism has to say? What about Islam’s position?
What about the sacred Islamic rule of respecting and obeying one’s parents no matter what – how do I practice it when I find myself struggling to find a shred of respect for my father? How do I live by these rules when I can’t do daily tasks without lying about something to avoid unwanted trouble?
I often find the reality of my life at one extreme, and the teachings of my religion at another.
As an adult, I still live with my parents – like all other unmarried sons and daughters in my community. I wouldn’t mind this cultural rule if I had better parents – but it is not like I have much choice in the first place. With our third world economy, it’s almost impossible for someone to be financially independent by themselves over here.
My father’s behavior has partially improved, but it’s still hard to live with him. He still tries to control major aspects of our lives (but I am at least emotionally shielded from him now). As I make big career plans and decisions regarding my future life, I still have to try to hold back and look reserved in front of him – for that has always been my life: a life of extremes.