On the importance of memoirs

Photo Credit: Amazon

I just finished reading Leila Ahmed’s A Border Passage last night.

For those of you familiar with Leila Ahmed, you’re probably thinking “Oh no!” or “Right on!” For those unfamiliar, Leila Ahmed is a controversial figure within Islamic Studies scholarship. Or maybe just with Muslims. I don’t know. I honestly haven’t really read too much of her work. Maybe I should. I feel her views may have evolved.

In any case, I first encountered her work as a freshman in the midst of writing my very first research paper (we didn’t do that in high school – have things changed since then?). At the time, I didn’t wear the headscarf, but was still interested in the topic of Women in Islam. Leila Ahmed came up as THE scholar in this field and I basically used her arguments to justify my feelings on hijab at the time (i.e. it is not required).

Things obviously have changed since then.

Fast forward almost five years later, I felt regret and almost disgust for having taken the self-righteous and arrogant position I once had (I don’t blame Leila for this, this was all on me). For now, I had begun to don the headscarf.

So, when I came across Leila Ahmed’s memoir at Half Price Books a few months ago, I was at once intrigued and a bit hesitant. Did I want to subject myself to more orientalist drivel (I just love that phrase, btw)? But the synopsis (can it even be called a synopsis if it’s a memoir?) mentioned things like Arab nationalism and identity that I thought to myself, “Hey, it’s only $3.50.” I don’t have to buy into everything she says. So I bought the book.

And then read it (well, I read two books in between, because like I said, I was hesitant). But I have to say: since perhaps A Suitable Boy, I haven’t read a book that has caused me to ponder on so many topics on such a visceral level: manufactured nationalism (because it always is), women, feeling “home,” the “liberating” West, interfaith relations in a more pristine time, etc. I didn’t agree with everything Leila wrote, but I do appreciate her telling of history.

Whatever you think of Nasser (he’s the most prominent political figure in this memoir, Leila having grown up in Egypt in the middle of the 20th century – but you can substitute him for almost anyone), depending on what side you are on, the history book you are reading only tells you one side. We like to think of history as objective, factual, empirical in a way. But Leila’s recalling reminded me that there are many more perspectives than we are privy to. I particularly appreciated how Leila herself added many times throughout that her own memory might not have captured all that was going on. And that too reminded me of the importance of memoirs.

As someone who writes about her life with one-time plans to write a memoir, I realized that even if I don’t live an extraordinary life in the sense that I will never be recorded in “history,” that does not mean that my personal experiences don’t have something unique and needed to offer to those interested in the entirety of the human experience. As my last post almost abruptly touched on: What is it like to be a young woman who loses all that weight after the “entire world”* essentially made her feel that her weight was all that mattered? That story, as I’ve lived with for the past 8 years, does not come with a nicely packaged conclusion after that “after” shot.

But that’s not all. What is it like to be a young woman observing hijab in a world (or country) where some people feel that shariah law is going to take over the entire world? What is it like to be a Muslim from India and to be proud of this fact and yet also be concerned about what the right-wing hateful political establishment is doing to your Muslim brothers and sisters still living in the desh?

These are but some of the narratives constantly playing in my mind — and only I can weave them together in the way that I would.

In a world where individuals increasingly feel that there’s nothing we can do, that there are forces more powerful (and sinister, in many cases!) than we moving and shaping the trajectory of our lives, memoirs reminds us that our thoughts and our feelings are still within our control, and that they still matter… to at least someone.

*Remember that my telling will be subjective. But that’s fine.

Hijab in the Public Sphere

So Twitter is probably not the best source of inspiration for reflective thought, but a comment I received on my hijab piece “Just leave me and my hijab alone, please” and reading this reflection on a talk given by Tariq Ramadan on the importance of actually engaging with others in our religiously pluralistic society, got me thinking on what my hijab represents and whether I, by virtue of living in a pluralistic society, am even allowed to make such a statement.

The title of my article is provocative and purposely so – I want people to read the stuff I write, yes, it’s true – but it was clear that that certain Twitterer did not actually read my article. I don’t frequently receive questions from people about hijab (mostly because I can be a hermit at times). But when I do, I don’t just simply brush them off and tell them to mind their own business. When a non-Muslim can muster the courage to actively engage with a visible Muslim, I am really appreciative of that fact and try to answer their question to the best of my ability.

But I struggle with my answer on hijab and that’s why I wrote that article.

Still, because I am a visible Muslim woman, does that mean I must therefore serve as a spokesperson for all of Islam and all Muslims?

Further adding to the complexity is the fact that I’ve been involved in interfaith work and want to continue doing it – Tariq Ramadan’s lecture only reinforced this conviction of mine. But am I inherently contradicting myself?

After giving it some more thought, I want to say No. When I come to an interfaith gathering, when we all do, we come with an understanding that we don’t represent, the actions particularly, of all our coreligionists. I can want to educate others on Islam and yet still not serve as the official spokesperson for all its adherents. I don’t think it’s a contradiction and I have to remind myself of this fact when reductionists make me feel like it is.

Man, this is making me think back to my “Secularism and the Citizen in the Middle East” class I took at UChicago. Thoughts of PhD have been swirling around the past few days. I still have no plan of action, but I’ve been thinking I may revisit it again in the future. When a 70 year old man can get his Bachelor’s why can’t I get my PhD, if I decide that is what I want?

I’m learning to accept that goals and aspirations, like my faith and spiritual development, are neither static nor are they linear.