I had always perceived myself as an intellectual, strong-minded and ambitious woman. I had been through a roller coaster of experiences and reflective episodes to find the ‘woman’ in me. My African heritage, upbringing and the British society I grew up in contributed to defining the woman I was. The majority of the women in my family were strong-minded, ambitious women who despite being wives and mothers had a sense of individualism. Being brought up in an African family, there were no limits placed on what I could attain as a female. My siblings and I, regardless of gender were equally nurtured academically and encouraged to explore different hobbies and activities. The reality and experience of a black woman like myself meant that I was vulnerable to the negative stereotypes and apparent discrimination in society. Before my spiritual awakening, I had the opportunity to travel to different countries and observe womanhood from diverse cultural backgrounds. The freedom to explore my identity all contributed to finding my unique ‘self’, the thing that made me ‘me’. Growing up in the era of equality and women’s rights, I labeled myself an ‘independent woman’. My definition of an ‘independent woman’ meant that I was not restricted by cultural and societal constraints on a woman and was determined to reach my full potential. My African and family values promoted marriage and motherhood, but equally celebrated intellectual and ambitious women. Culturally, West African women in particular are not restricted to the roles of wives and mothers.
Transitioning from born to practicing Muslimah threatened my sense of womanhood. I was pleasantly surprised to learn about the elevated status and countless rights Islam gave women. Irrespective of this, I could not help but notice the narrow ideal of the ‘righteous Muslim woman’ among some of the Muslims I met. The main topics of conversation between women at Islamic gatherings were marriage and motherhood. I was often asked if I was married, and when I responded I was not, there were hints of pity, and I was urged to get married quickly. I concluded early on that being a wife and mother was the ultimate ‘Muslimah dream’, associated with strong religious commitment.
I was told my mindset was ‘un-Islamic’, my aspirations ‘too worldly’, and my desire to be anything but a wife or mother conflicted with being a virtuous Muslim woman.
I too wanted to be a wife and a mother someday, but the perception that was my only option was devastating. I secretly feared turning into a boring and timid version of ‘me’. Did I really have to change into a new person to be accepted as a practicing Muslim woman? Was there really no room for an intellectual, dynamic, and ambitious Muslimah like me? I struggled to accept my fate and began to downplay my personality, achievements and ambitions in an attempt to wear the cloak of ‘piety’. This led to me feeling like an Imposter, the real me was fading into someone I no longer recognised. Just when I had reached breaking point, I learnt about the great women of Islam. Righteous women some of who were promised paradise; from diverse backgrounds and circumstances, had distinctive personalities and were unique in their own ways. Amongst them were married, unmarried, mothers, barren, intellectual women and scholars who contributed significantly to Islam. I was relieved to discover that Muslim women didn’t fit into ‘one box’; there was room for individuality within the boundaries of Islam! I let go of the pretence and started being ‘myself’ again. I finally found the Muslim woman in me.