WHAT COMES FIRST, THE PATH OR THE PERSON?
There are only so many times something is a coincidence before it’s a synchronicity. Life itself has been one big synchronicity. And there have been dreams with very clear messages, some that wouldn’t make sense in words, others that haunt me. And there have been experiences that connect you to things that are unseen but can still be experienced. This is deeply personal but it’s part of the story. It first started when I was five years old. It stopped for a while, and then it started again in my mid-twenties. It comes and goes.
When you’re younger, it can be difficult to make sense of what’s happening to you. You can try to force your way through the marshes of life, and it doesn’t always work out how you plan. Everyone knows that. I’m at a point now where I can look back at the labyrinth from a different perspective – not just in it, but above it as well. I see how walls and obstacles led me to be where I am today. And I see a guiding force.
When I was 4, I thought God was a pirate. My understanding of God was nebulous and as my experiences grew, so did my understanding of Him – of It. I see divinity as an intelligence, as the highest consciousness. And we’re nowhere near understanding God’s true form yet. We’re collectively still apes staring at a monolith in awe. But we’re getting there. And as I move forward, I have total faith and complete trust. I know I’m on the path I was born to be on. And I know that path will always challenge me to become a more skilled spiritual warrior.
And that path most recently led me to awaken to a divine feminine. I was disconnected from other women for so long, feeling isolated from them and frustrated by their interest in the superficial. And it wasn’t until I went through an endless emotional roller coaster in life, marriage, divorce, and through motherhood, that I came to reflect and realize that my role here isn’t just about faith, but it’s to use every experience and my background to help lift other women – because I’ve lived their story in one way or another.
The question is still there: what came first, the path or the person? Or do they form each other in union, the path paved through the person and the person forged by the path?
I’ve moved from country to country to a very young age – it might as well have been from Mars to Earth. I’ve been bullied for it enough times. I’ve been shown incredible friendship and kindness as well. And from it, I’m able to understand people.
I’ve been raised by a very traditional Muslim family who supported academics but didn’t know the first thing about teaching me to know myself. I was encouraged to speak up but never encouraged to have a voice. It took ages and probably too many mistakes to figure out how to have a voice. And I wouldn’t change that either. I can now connect with other women who still need to be lifted up. And I don’t mean the stroppy, leading with blind attitude, over-confident sense of self that’s become common; the sort of pseudo feminism that lacks grace, patience, and silence enough to listen as well as speak. I mean something far deeper and grounded, that something that helps you see reality as a kaleidoscope.
I’d also thrown myself into a poorly suited marriage with someone who still really has no idea who I am. Despite being a secular South Asian girl blessed with a mom who didn’t force marriage, it was I who forced my own hand.
Culture has deep roots, very deep roots and it’s more powerful than religion. My marriage experiment stemmed from a culmination of prior experiences resulting from deep cultural indoctrination, paired with still having a lot of lessons left to learn. And so I spent five years in a mausoleum with a stone-hearted effigy while suffocating into a slow death myself. I lost myself and I felt destroyed. And then eventually that forged me too. It killed off any lingering romanticism that was holding me back from being stronger, and totally emotionally independent, free of any need for validation or recognition.
It was another death. The fifth one in the 35 years of life so far.
THE FIVE DEATHS
The first death was the death illusion and success that I chased initially, throwing away law school to take on reform work and relative poverty in the early years. When revolution means everything to you because you know what comes after a revolution, you’re going to do whatever it takes to make that happen, including selling your jewelry so you can fund yourself. It’s a well-known immigrant code that you do not ever sell your jewels: it’s the only security you have left after waves of movement and uncertainty.
While certainty is important, so is your soul’s work. Your soul’s work is so important – it’s more important than what religion you belong to, what nationality or race you claim. It’s even more important than your children. The question is: what does your soul call to? What are you here for? What draws you?
For me, it was reforming a faith because every single life experience I had pointed to that door. That same door, every time. Every path led to that same end purpose. That is how I knew it was my soul’s work – from not fitting in and feeling like an outcast at age 4, to losing my spark in a culture that didn’t understand me, to finding my way again through Stephen.
I had to do this work and so I gave up law school and a typical career and found a way to fund myself: I sold my jewelry. It sounds like madness, but to me it was the sanest step forward.
If you could save a life by selling your jewelry, would you do it? If you could help save a world of people by selling your jewelry, would you do it? I think almost everyone would.
The principle doesn’t change because it’s a theory or because you can’t see these people or even ever know them. It’s about faith in your soul’s work. You know this is what you’re working toward and it’s something you can’t ever ignore or give up on. So you can choose to hang on to your ‘precious’ and put that ring on your finger, knowing you snuffed a piece of your soul’s work to wear that. And if that’s the case, the rock doesn’t quite shine so bright anymore, anyway. In all fairness, having moved 19 times in 35 years helps you not get attached to things. It makes it easier to lose what’s not important.
The second was the death of attachment through the rough exile I faced when I took on reform work. My newfound interest in faith, in a family that didn’t ever study the Quran or question it, didn’t go over very well. It was not easy. There was a lot of conflict. I was clumsy. There was no set path, no conversation or social media the way we have access to dialogue and resources now.
It was 2003 and I was just reaching out in the dark, trusting at some point I’d be able to see. Yet, you can’t even really see yourself yet. You’re not done evolving. Like a child, you challenge everything. You’re riotous, insensitive, inconsiderate, and somewhat self-destructive. You’re brimming with emotion and ideas but have no clue how to steady yourself and channel your focus. That’s how it started. Some people who started on a similar path around the same time are still stuck in that state of mind. Some have evolved. Others have regressed, their humility suffering under the burden of their ego.
There’s no specific start or end. The beginning of a journey is sometimes set at different points along the way. Whether you start within your family, online or some other way, you become a powerful disrupter challenging millennia-old thinking that doesn’t realize how damaging decrepit elements of Islamic culture and faith are. There’s that saying, if you stare into the abyss, the abyss stares back at you. But if you take on ancient gods of culture and tradition, of unquestioned belief, the dark comes for you.
It’s not easy taking on the abuser in an abusive relationship, especially when the abuser is an idea or a system. And you wake up from it by slowly but radically deconstructing everything you think defines you. And you build yourself back up. The transitions were slower ten years ago, but with social media, more voices for humanity, and new coalitions, it’s quickening.
The third death was losing Stephen. That loss brought the death of passivity and reservation. He’s shown what the future can look like, what’s possible, and what’s at stake – and so you burn to make it happen once he’s gone. And years later you see what he saw in you, what he worked so hard to awaken. And you wake up. You rise. And you never stop missing him. That unbearable ache from having your daemon stripped from you, that’s what it’s like to have lost him. It doesn’t go away, it doesn’t lessen. But it does drive you to honor him through your work.
The fourth is the death of ego. Cancer is pretty good at killing off your ego. My thyroid cancer diagnosis did a lot of things, but most importantly it put a budding ego in check. God must have really wanted me to take a step back, because the next year he placed an autism diagnosis on my plate. Dealing with just those two back to back was a tremendous challenge, but also necessary. My two year old’s autism spectrum diagnosis meant that my focus was totally on him for a year. People see autism as some sort of disorder or burden – and sure, it’s exhausting – but it’s a tremendous gift. Working with him got me to lose my Tiger Mom persona and truly respect him and his reality. It forces you to fully and completely step outside of yourself, because that’s what needs to happen on an almost daily basis. It makes you become a better outlier.
Making sure Reagan got what he needed kept me away from the reform work directly, and made me an outside observer once again – which let me really think about things differently, and without influence or indulgent fanfare. It was a necessary incubation period.
Autism and working in addiction and mental health the following year fostered deeper compassion for human suffering. And you can’t be doing reform work if you don’t understand people’s experience or respect their vulnerabilities. It was another layer added onto the human dignity my mom taught me to respect at an early age. Kindness is – or should be – at the heart of this work. This is a work of love and will be successful only if it’s out of love.
And finally the fifth death: weakness. You don’t really realize how strong you are until you’re treated like you’re nothing. I found my highest strength through a failed marriage that was emotionally abusive. No one intended it to be – that was just who he was. But because I was an empath, I suffered deeply and it took that final suffering to awaken a resounding inner strength. I could have awoken far sooner, but I had a lot of cultural unknotting and unlearning to do. The next generation of women can be far more, sooner, and better for it, because they will be raised in the sacred feminine rather than falling into it.
For me, I first had to go through these five deaths. When you’ve been died so many times, in so many ways, you eventually can’t be killed anymore. Absolutely nothing can touch you. When you learn to catch weakness in yourself and others, and address them, you have an identity that is fluid and can evolve and adapt as needed. When every setback has been leveraged as a strength, you begin wielding a sort of defiant resilience. That doesn’t mean you won’t suffer more loss, more pain, or more setbacks. What it means is that there’s not a damn thing on earth that will stop you. That’s what it means to be a Muslim reformer.
Steel is forged in fire and you need to be steel to shift a 1400 year old faith and a culture that’s much older than that. It can and will be done. It’s already happening. And I’m still learning the art of the sacred feminine. I’m learning to trust my body’s intelligence – to know that I can only go in one direction at a time. I’m learning that as I grow stronger and more visible, more people want something from me but their intentions are not always pure or in alignment, and that I can’t take on everything. I’m still learning to say no and to trust my intuition because it has never failed me if I honor its voice.
Rising in the sacred feminine means understanding your experience, learning to know yourself and honor yourself as a powerful source of creation. To take back what has been taken from you through tribal culture and patriarchal religion. Learn to know what kind of person you are. I am an empath which means that energies heavily affect me. This means I need to protect myself from energy vampires, learning how to draw boundaries, learning how I’m affected, but also trusting in that ability to navigate a way forward. There are many Muslim reformers and voices for humanity who are moving forward and everyone will have a different story. Many of these – in fact most of these – will be women who are rising in the feminine because there’s no other way for us.
People have their own reasons for why they engage in this work. For me, it’s about divine purpose – not just my purpose in answering the call, but working to help usher humanity toward the next phase of consciousness, to help lift women authentically and without seeing them as another transaction or tool to get what I want. To do that, we need as many disruptors as possible within Islamic faith and culture rising against authority; we need to harness every opportunity to activate change agents. We need to find and awaken others, and set them free. We need to nurture women as matriarchs acting authentically within the feminine – but we also need to beware of women who see this work as a transactional exchange to further their own career or identity. There are both types. Learn to know yourself, work to nurture your soul’s calling, but also be really aware of how and where you invest yourself because not everyone is working from a place of authenticity.
The next phase of human evolution, of a rising collective consciousness, will need the sacred feminine. It’s not about a way forward; it’s about going back to how it was and rebirthing feminism in spirituality.
Read Part 1.
[Editorial Note: This essay is included in She Rises: How Goddess Feminism, Activism, and Spirituality?]