Under Her Feet

by Reda
(Winnipeg)

The cockroach crawls onto the laptop towards my fingers. Terrified, I almost flung my laptop onto the mattress, where the corpse of another cockroach lay under a Raid handle. It is 3:30 am, and I haven’t had a minute of sleep since I came home to discover a further infestation of my room.

For a second, I almost considered calling. Almost.

I sat on my suitcase, mystified as to how I landed in this position. Prey to insects that claim my room as their own. Two months ago, I slept on a stiff but clean mattress in my house.

Two months ago, I also came home to find my clothes on the floor, and my mother was rising out of her couch. I begged for a chance to explain. The train caused my delayed; my phone was turned off. My mom met my pleas with the smack of a hangar, and I fell into a fetal position, skin taut with fear. I knew this dance. The promise of agony laid in her hands. This violent reaction happens every time.

Step One: cover the sensitive areas. Stomach, face, and breasts. She makes accusations of apparent whoredom mixed with pleas for mercy. My older brother blocks her. He petitions her to calm down. After all, it is 10 pm, and the neighbors have work tomorrow.

Guilt can cause a mean writer’s block. In this piece, I am the judge, jury, and executioner. I am hesitant to list her crimes, worried that every word I write is a sin tallied against myself.

I am tempted to list mitigating circumstances to lessen her punishment in the court of public opinion. She was a single mother, stressed out, had an abusive husband, etc., all of that is true, and, she should not have gone through that. I am grateful for the assets she has provided for me, which has been quite a bit. However, “good” people do bad things. Likewise, “bad” people do good things. A hug and a forced apology do not make a bruise heal faster, nor do they dry tears any quicker.

Islamic school does not erase muscle memory. I still flinch at raised hands, bracing myself for the inevitable slap. Beautiful clothes do not cover the shame I feel on my body, which has suffered consistent verbal and physical assault. It has taken years to ignore my mother's voice, degrading my existence for the fact that it takes up a bigger space than my friends. Nicknames do not shield hatred. Being called “princess” will not erase the many times she told me she wished I was never born.

The act of conceiving a child is inherently selfish, and there is nothing wrong with that. Parents want to have a biological child not out of a twisted sense of charity, but because their inner desires demand a child. However, this was a contract I didn’t ask to sign. Why have children if you are going to hold your choices over their head like a noose, threatening to hang them at the slightest sense of impertinence?
This attitude is commonplace in Somali culture infused with Islamic beliefs. There is a famous instance where a man approached the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and asked who he should pledge allegiance to after God and him. The Prophet (peace be upon him) famously replied “your mother” multiple times before he mentioned the father.

Somali culture enshrines the plight of the mother, she who carried a child for nine months and pushed them out of her womb and breastfed them for years. The culture lauds her as a martyr, a selfless being. There are multiple lines of evidence in Islam that treasure the importance of the mother. Therefore, for Somali Muslims, to disrespect the mother is equivalent to disrespecting the religion. “Heaven lays under the mother’s feet,” another often-quoted saying of the Prophet (peace be upon him), is well-known on the tongues of Somali children.

Religious Abuse

The question is: how do you divorce the actions of the mother from the average Muslim’s belief in God? How do you distinguish the actions of the fallible human from the faith in the Infallible? For many people, they simply cannot do so. It is why when we grow older, we joke about the beatings our parents gave us. We justify this abuse, citing our lack of discipline as ample reason to hurt us as if children’s bodies were made to be punished and not nurtured.

I deserved it. Wallahi, I was such a brat, we laugh. The hangar is not evidence of a crime. Rather, it is a simple toy we banter about, something enshrined in our childhoods. The tears of the child become the punchline of the adult. We perpetuate our cycle of abuse. We victim-blame ourselves and allow this belief to seep into the next generation. There is a particular term for this - "religious abuse." What makes religious violence so lethal is that it encompasses all the other types of ill-treatment under the umbrella term of “God.” Perhaps it is irony, but abuse based on spiritual faith tends to drive victims away from religion. Victims create negative associations between religious symbols and their parents’ oppression. After all, how does one divorce the actions of the mother from God when the entrance to”heaven (that) lays under her feet” has been used to kick you down? I’m still in the process of figuring this out.

It has been two months since that day. I am about to move into a cleaner, non-infested place, closer to my friends and school. I have stayed outside after 8 pm. I have gone out and changed my mind, simply because I have the freedom to do so. There are nights where I can do nothing but shed tears for what I’ve lost. Likewise, there are days where laughter is the only sound that escapes my mouth.

I’m not sure what I am going to do. However, I know that whatever choices I make will be mine, and mine alone.

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