Friday, June 17, 2016

Coming Out As a Divorced Muslim Woman in the African American Community

By Ayisha Karim

Alhamdulillah.  I am very truly happy for you!  So now I ask you to do something that may be hard- pray for your brother and forgive.  I know this period of time has possibly made it hard to see, but he is a good man and a good father. While this may be the best situation, it will also be a cause of suffering for a good man.  He may need that trial but that is up to Allah not us. Also- Allah put you through a big test/hardship and I know you have been pondering and contemplating but think hard on how this struggle is suppose to teach you & improve you- make you a better person, woman, wife, Muslim.  Love you my dear.  Have a beautiful day!

Ayisha on 'Arafat
The above note is a text from a dear friend, a mutual friend of both me and my ex-husband. It came the morning after I sent out a mass text/ fb post, hinting at a personal victory: the judge’s rulings in my trying court, divorce trial. While I understand my friend’s wise advice, it stung me deep to the core. And what, might you ask, led to this initial sting: 1) the small time lapse between my sharing this personal victory and her response to pray for him, OR 2) the fact that it was coming from a female—I imagined a female friend would side with her girlfriend. Perhaps, more pressing than either reason above, it magnified in my mind how the man seems to always get the upper hand, the benefit of the doubt, the second chances within the cultures and communities with which I mostly associate: African-American and Muslim.

Question: Do not women have feelings, and even egos that need stroking, too, giving us full credence to cry out, to FIGHT, to share our stories, to get people to see where we, women, are coming from?? Can’t I share my story with full confidence that God is also with me every step of the way? And is it possible that I too am a “good” woman, and God had me go through this as a means to elevate me to a more peaceful and productive state of being, living, and loving. Couldn’t this all be a gift that God gives to yet another sincere servant?

While the Qur’an, in its discussion of divorce, speaks to the rights men have over women, God also says that, “women shall have similar rights to the rights against them.” I know that this statement of rights is followed up with, “And men have a degree over them.” However, many commentators interpret this as a degree of kindness and responsibility:

“Ibn ‘Abbas is reported to have said, ‘This degree is a reference to men’s encouraging good relations and their generosity toward women in wealth and virtuous behavior, which means that the one possessing the upper hand must be biased against himself”(The Study Quran).

Further, God speaks of parting on peaceful, “equitable” terms:

“It is not lawful for you (men), to take back any of your gifts (from your wives).”  

“When you divorce women, and they fulfill the term of their (Iddat), either take them back on equitable terms or set them free on equitable terms; but do not take them back to injure them, (or) to take undue advantage; if any one does that; he wrongs his own soul.”

Had my friend even considered how I, the woman, had been treated in this divorce, whether or not I received the rights that are divinely sanctioned for me? Had she considered whether the divorce proceedings were peaceful and just; whether certain gifts that had been given to me during the good times of our marriage been taken from me or withheld to spite me? Perhaps most painful to consider: Had she considered the possibility that I had been abandoned, left to rely on my family?

Instead of considering all these possibilities of a woman being denied her divine rights, my friend was more inclined to think of the feelings of the husband. Unfortunately, this tendency to prioritize men’s egos is not unlike that of many Muslim women, especially happily-married women, and definitely not unlike that of many Muslim men. Many empathize: Oh, it’s so hard being a married man in this society. True. Dare add sentiments about the plight of being a "Black Man in America": Don’t you realize how hard it is for a Black man to be the type of provider [qawwam] he wants to be in this society? Oh, his ego is so fragile; we must, as women, protect his ego and be a comfort to him as he fights against a society that sees him as a threat and fights against discrimination, racism, white privilege, inequality, etc.

*Trust me, God has made me keenly aware of this struggle as the loyal daughter, sister, friend, former lover, and now mother of the Black American man. I’m also grateful for the work of scholars such as Coates, Dr. West, and my cousin Dr. Winters (Duke University) for bringing light to this struggle. Not to be mistaken, a sista is down for the cause; yet and still, I choose God first, and God demands men to protect the rights of women as a sacred duty as my sister Dr. Karim discusses here. Second, I choose the richness of life. I choose to live a full, satisfying life, and growing up, my mother taught me that Ayisha means full of life.

Many of these same men and women, who focus on protecting men, use the following Qur’anic verse to justify their thoughts:

“Men are “qawwamun” in relation to women, according to what God has favored some over others and according to what they spend from their wealth. Righteous women are ‘qanitat’, guarding the unseen according to what God has guarded” (4:34).

“Qawwamun” is usually translated as maintainers and “qanitat” as devoutly obedient, understood first as obedient to Allah, and most traditional interpreters would also add, obedient to husbands. Indeed this verse does suggest that men have an important sacred role that women should honor and respect. And too many of us seem to think that honoring men should come at the expense of overlooking women’s needs. In this case, we are denying the Qur’an’s clear demand for men to maintain justice in their dealings with women.

Another possibility is that we need to see v. 4:34 in a new light. Kecia Ali, a fellow Duke alumna and Islamic scholar addresses a certain ambiguity in this verse, and uncovers an aspect of it, which many fail to consider when viewing the man/husband as the one with the advantage:

“The most important element in re-readings of this verse is the focus on male support of women. If men are qawwamun in part ‘because of what’ they spend on women, then their role is dependent on their exercise of financial responsibility. If men no longer support women, then they lose any resultant authority. (Thus, in a family where both husband and wife contribute to the household expenses, the husband would not be the wife’s qawwam.)” (Sexual Ethics and Islam)

Regardless of whether or not you agree with Ali’s stance, my initial feelings and concerns still hold. I fear that if we so quickly come to the defense of the Muslim man and his rights, or even see men and women as equally vulnerable without recognizing that men have a greater responsibility to be kind--which implies that women have a greater chance of being wronged--,we risk overlooking, downplaying, and even dismissing the  status of women in marriage and divorce. In simple terms, we leave very little room for compassion.

Even more, we further isolate Muslim women, suppress their voices, discourage the telling of their stories, and at worst, we send virtuous, striving women looking for more satisfying alternatives outside their faith of Islam. At times, this is done unconsciously as we allow our speech and actions to be guided by our wounds and scars, lingering from slavery and racism, stemming from the “dominant group’s legacy of greed, exploitation, lies, and denial,” to use my sister’s words.

During this beautiful month of Ramadan, let us return to a focus on the heart and its purification. Believing women need a constant cleansing of the heart to be the nurturing, compassionate, and caring individuals that God intended us to be. Perhaps our storytelling and sharing of major life experiences are healthy, productive ways to remove the darkness and impurities trapped in our hearts, blocking us from becoming better Muslims, better human beings, and better mu’minat, believing women.



  1. As you are the Queens of our time it is very fitting that you carry the torch for us. There is a need for truth and honesty and it is those things that has allowed us as women to be the ones to Nurture and guide the world to the place Allah has seen fit.
    My husband always says "Real People Do Real Things". Continue to fly thank you for assisting us to fly with you all.
    With Love Tia-Lennora Hajjah Muti'ah Pierrot-Williams-Martin smiles its a mouthful.

    Dr. Obedient

  2. Much success, niece! You've embarked on a tremendous journey. I will make Dua for you for protection against the Jinn. Along the way remember umm Khadijah who was a divorcee twice and very wealthy. Umm Hagar may have had a better experience had she not been broke. She would have used her gold to rent a camel and a tent and gone back home to her family instead of wandering around in the desert! Because he left her broke after he abandoned her, she was there when he returned. Success has always been the Best Revenge (hehehe). I don't believe umm Khadijah would have allowed him to come back so easily, if at all, all things being equal.

  3. "That is a powerful blog. As I read the message to which Ayisha is responding, my puzzlement and then anger increased, and her rational evidence and scriptural-based response plus her honesty really moved me. Please thank her for sharing this."

    "Please tell Ayisha that I applaud her strength in sharing her pain to call out the community and admire her reasoned and scholarly argument. Those who listen can only be enriched."

  4. Well written concise and truthful! May Allah guide your hands and our hearts. I am so proud of you Ayisha. Speak truth to power and you will always have my support. Love you sis

    Azizah K

  5. "Thank you for sharing this brave piece, Ayisha.
    After befriending divorced sisters in my community, I'm realizing there are so many parallels between divorce and widowhood (I was widowed eight months ago). The need to (re)discover oneself, develop autonomy, and rebuild self-esteem is a prime example.

    May Allah Ta'ala bless you and your family,

  6. "I recently read a powerful and brave post by a divorced Muslim woman, and, in a culture where there is much misunderstanding of the view of women in Islam, I thought this might make interesting reading for many. Remember that much of what we attribute to religion is primarily cultural in nature!"

    1. As Salaam Aliekum Ayisha. What a gift your blog is. As a woman who has long struggled with the fulfilment of marriage as a Muslim your blog has already, and I'm sure will continue to ready me for this important fulfilment of my Deen. Your reference to "degree" as a degree of kindness is so helpful in the re'framing I know I need to bring to attain higher consciousness related to marriage. My hesitancy as inferred by previous commenter may well be influenced by cultural examples unrelated to our religion. As an African American Muslim woman and as a Black woman in America societal norms (isms) already negatively impact healthy marriages. Your blog is a place I will visit frequently to affirm the possibility of joy, commitment, and obedience to the will of Allah through understanding of what Allah is really saying about gender roles. Yes! Hagar lives!

    2. Thank you, dear Alicia; I'm so glad we connected. May we both graciously stumble upon joyful intimacy and union with a fellow believer in our attempts to attain divine love with our Creator. And when we do, may we dive in fiercely, never again accepting less.

  7. Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom. It takes courage and faith. Truly, if we keep doing the same, we will get the same. Words may have the power to harm and heal.
    I already feel healing from reading this post, and I look forward to reading more.

  8. YA ALLAH!!! ALL OF THIS! for way to long we have denied ourselves the permission to feel the many shades of emotions for fear of judgement or that it makes us look weak ungrateful, unfaithful even, not to mention as Black muslim women we are to be complete unbreakable bullet proof pillars. I am so very proud of you! Im happy to see that we are stepping into being okay with expressing our true life experiences that we really are navigating this world with heart and expect to be considered. I AM NOT INVISIBLE! Good for you! I Love this! RUN ON HAGAR!

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