After our roundtable on Nouman Ali Khan and spiritual abuse, multiple women have accused scholar Tariq Ramadan of rape and sexual abuse. In addition, the Harvey Weinstein scandal has triggered responses by victims and survivors sharing their accounts of sexual violence almost daily. This included the social media campaign #metoo, in which some women voiced their own personal accounts of sexual abuse and survival. Then, actor Kevin Spacey was revealed to be a sexual predator of a 14 year old and others. Spacey was one of the latest names to be included to a list of over 20 powerful Hollywood men who have perpetrated sexual violence.
This has all happened within a few weeks. And the stories keep coming.
From my perspective, it is encouraging that more and more victims are speaking out. At the same time, for anyone who is a survivor, these new revelations can act as triggers and bring up painful memories of past (or current) trauma. Now more than ever, it is important for survivors to practice self-care.
The best thing about self-care is that it comes in many forms. It can be as simple as taking a deep, cleansing breath or as extravagant as a spa day or shopping spree. I’ve written before about how self-care isn’t selfish, but rather necessary. Sometimes, however, we buy into the notion that the more we give to others, the better people we are. But, from my experience,that isn’t true. Lack of self-care can lead to resentment, physical maladies and worsened mental illness, when stress and guilt end up manifesting in the body. I am not a healthcare professional and this post is in no way meant to be considered as medical advice. However, I was blessed to join a women’s circle a year ago, and I have learned a lot about self-care from that experience.
Unfortunately, as Muslim women one of our biggest obstacles to healing can be other Muslims who use religious narratives against us. I remember being told by other Muslims there was no such thing as (postpartum) depression in Islam; and that if a person’s iman was strong enough, they wouldn’t feel sad or depressed. Some others advised to make dua and pray more when we are facing difficulties or when mental illness manifests. A spiritual connection is important, but seeking other means of healing isn’t any less spiritual. Talking to a therapist or a friend, if someone is so inclined, isn’t wrong and a person shouldn’t be made to feel like it is. Many Muslim women feel like they can’t speak to anyone about their experiences with abuse and sexual violence for this very reason. Muslim women are often made to feel shame on two levels; what are you doing wrong as a woman? And what are you doing wrong as a Muslim? The narrative goes that she must be engaging in sinful behavior for her to be in a bad situation.
The narrative is wrong! For instance, sexual assault is about power. Even when a woman is dressed modestly, she can be and often is a target for abuse. How many Muslim women suffer in silence because “Allah is with the patient”? How many keep their trauma to themselves because it’s better to keep silent than to “air dirty laundry” to an audience that often vilifies Muslims and perpetuates Islamophobia? The narrative and stigma that comes with it, is oppressive enough to keep many women silent.
For those Muslim women, that means going through experiences of violence on their own. For those of you who are in those situations, I see you, I hear you and I believe you.
For this reason, I want to offer you something I have learned in the past little while. I offer you a practice called “write and burn.” I learned it in my women’s circle and it has been invaluable. The point of this exercise is to take all your feelings and write them down on a piece of paper. You may start writing cohesive sentences that slowly become incomprehensible. It’s OK. The point is to just keep going. The angrier the better. Scribbles, misspelled, ANGRY CAPSLOCK SCREAMING, lots of exclamation points, words you’d never say out loud… all go on the page. Keep going until you don’t need to anymore. DO NOT READ IT! When you feel the anger and helplessness dissipate then you light it up and burn it down! I like to watch it burn. It’s comforting to watch the swirls of smoke disappear into the air. I have found so much peace in this activity. It has become a form of self-care for me when I find myself feeling things I just can’t say out loud. To me, write and burn is a lot like what I’d imagine a confessional to be; only with no one listening or judging you. When I’m writing for the sake of burning, all of my emotions are directed at someone and yet no one at the same time. And I really do feel like the burden has been lessened when I’m done. I feel lighter afterwards.
Self-care is about taking a moment for yourself when everything just gets to be too much. Or taking those moments as a preventative measure before things get unbearable. We have so many commitments and obligations to everything and everyone around us including co-workers, parents, spouses, kids, friends and society. It never ends. But the question is, when do we commit to ourselves? Some of us feel like we need to overcompensate and do that much more than our counterparts because we are women, Muslim, or racialized people (or all of those!). We feel guilty if we give less than 100%. We never feel like we’re allowed to have a moment to ourselves.
Yet, when we keep giving without refilling our reserves, we aren’t really giving our all. I have learned in my women’s circle that the notion of “should” is something I needed to get rid of. We all know the feeling, “I should eat healthier,” “I should be writing,” “I should be playing with the kids,” “I really should call so and so…” You could be doing all those things. But if you aren’t, then ask yourself why aren’t you? For me, a lot of the times, the answer really is I don’t want to. I know you’re thinking, selfish! But it’s ok. Because it’s my time (and yours!). I’m allowed to be selfish (and so are you!). Because for the most of the day, (and I’m sure the case is the same for you) I’m not being selfish; I’m doing any number of things for other people (which I’m not going to list here). Thus, I’ve learned, and I’m thankful that I’ve learned this relatively young in life, that I don’t want to feel guilty anymore. Taking time for myself and investing in others free of guilt makes me happier which, in turn, makes the people I’m with happier.
The most important thing to remember is that self-care does not need to cost a lot of money or any, for that matter. Many women do not have the luxury of a sick day. But self-care may still be within reach. Maybe it’s listening to a favorite song on the way to work. Or lighting a candle. Maybe it’s putting on a favorite shade of lipstick. For those of us who pray, prayer is self-care. Five times a day, I take myself out of the routine of the day and I remind myself to breathe. I remember to start again. Prayer and dhikr are their own forms of meditation and may be used for self-care.
It’s not always easy to turn away from social media, the news or life, for that matter, but we have to believe ourselves worthy of “me-time,” particularly in contexts where we experience gendered and racialized Islamophobic micro-aggressions. At the beginning, the process was not an easy one for me. I come from a culture where guilt, shame and expectations controlled every decision in my life. So sometimes there is no quick fix. You might find yourself faking it ‘til you make it. But you can do it. We can do it together. I believe in us!