Masjid is my place to make friends. I love the camaraderie, love, common values and the bond. It’s not everyday that I find people with similar backgrounds and customs so I appreciate the opportunity that masjid affords me in finding my tribe.
I have many friends who are close to me outside the masjid too. The cultural differences that we have bring us closer. Such is the strength of true friendship.
I like masjid for many reasons. And one of the biggest reasons is how women when they come from the same background open up to each other.
I started spending more time at the masjid when my daughter was diagnosed with autism. It became my venting place and my recentering place too. It became a haven of sorts. I gravitated towards masjid in periods of sadness. Invariably I came out of the masjid stronger and readier to face everything.
I saw her the first time as she was breastfeeding her baby. Even though she looked very early postpartum, her baby was healthy enough to pass off as a six or seven month old. But he was younger. She herself looked young and quiet. She did however have a smile always and I could tell that she spoke little English.
She was usually accompanied by a man. Even though the woman exuded calm and serenity, her demeanor changed when he was around. It was unmistakably obvious. He made her look frightened. He made her look a little paler.
She was a good looking woman. Not conventionally but the kind of good looks that you sometimes see in South East Asian women. The inexplicable attractiveness. The luminous quality. The quiet spell that women from this region cast on people who see them. Allah has given South East Asia a lot of dusky beauty. She was a very typical subcontinental woman in her looks.
And in her disposition too. She was quiet, timid and pleasant. Even though she didn’t talk much she looked pleasant and friendly. She always had a ready smile. I used to sit quite often very close to where she sat. Close to the door, next to the shoes, at an observation deck of sorts. We never talked much but then started to say Salam occasionally.
Her name was Hajra (not her real name). I don’t know how but I started to chat with her over small stuff and she started to chat with me. She spoke little English and her Urdu was terrible but being that I spoke no Bengali, we conversed in Urdu. Slowly her Urdu improved. Slowly our friendship got stronger.
I told her about my child being diagnosed with autism. She was several years younger than me and had only one son. The baby was often at her breast. He had gotten into biting her and she sometimes had tears in her eyes when he bit but she was very patient. Fortitude was her whole personality.
Her husband would come after saying Salah and the family would leave together. Hajra always looked very subdued in his presence but I never questioned it. I was afraid of finding out something that I strongly suspected. I could tell there was something that needed me to report it. I didn’t delve into it as I didn’t have the emotional or physical energy for it.
But as we started to become closer and spend sometimes up to an hour together at the masjid, the unmistakeable signs of violence on her frail body couldn’t be missed by me. I boldly asked and she confirmed.
“But he’s not a bad man. He’s actually a very good father and a good provider. We live very comfortably”.
“But why does he hit you”?”
“No particular reason. Sometimes dinner is late or the baby wakes up at night and disturbs his sleep or I spend a lot of time in the bathroom. It could be anything. His temper is really his biggest vice”.
“Have you guys ever talked to each other about it?”
“Sonia! I grew up watching my mom getting beaten up by my dad. This is actually more normal than households where it doesn’t happen. Just because you haven’t faced it doesn’t mean it can’t happen with you. It can and it probably will. Doesn’t mean your husband is a bad guy. Men are men and their temper requires for them to unleash it on their women. It’s almost his right over me.”
What? Is this woman defending her husband and actually telling me that I’m the anomaly here? That her life is actually the norm? I shook my head and said nothing. I decided to let it go.
But as easy as it was to let it go, it became hard for me to see that sometimes Hajra cried inconsolably during Salah. Now I’ve seen many people cry but the way she cried, it tore my heart. I knew why she cried but I had decided to not butt in her business anymore.
One day she told me her husband lost his job. He worked for a bank and had a good position. She asked me if my husband could help him. I promised to talk to Adnan.
Turned out that Adnan knew the husband. Encouraged by this knowledge I decided to tell Adnan about the domestic violence.
“Gosh! Did you tell her to call the police if he gets out of control?”
“No Adnan! I didn’t. I don’t want to break a family”.
“You have to tell her that. She has to know her rights”.
“Okay I’ll try”.
I didn’t go to the masjid for a few days. Hajra called me.
“Sonia! I haven’t seen you in days. Where have you been?”
“I’ve just been busy”.
“I needed to talk to you. Can you come to the masjid tonight?”
“Yes. I’ll put Minha to bed and maybe we can get together for Isha?”
We met and hugged and she cried a little. I knew what her sobs meant but I just didn’t want to get involved. Even though Adnan had asked me several times if I had told her to call 911 if things got too bad.
The truth is I was scared. I didn’t want to get involved. My mom says that cowards have the smallest consciences. Mine was small too. I feared that her husband would try to harm me or my baby. I steered clear of this problem.
But I couldn’t steer clear of her. She had become a sister, a shoulder to cry on and a confidante. She got my jokes and I showed her my writings then, eight years ago, that I’m sharing with the world now. This is how important she was to me.
Fear is a strange emotion. It’s usually baseless. This is why facing our fear removes it. But not facing it fortifies it. It makes it slowly invincible. It makes it in charge. It makes it stronger than us.
My fear of her husband was legitimate. He was a big, burly guy with very rough manners. Whereas my own husband is a soft, cool, funny, loving guy, her husband emanated a wrath, even when he wasn’t talking to her.
“I missed you Sonia! I’ve missed our talks”.
“I’ve missed you guys too. How’s everything?”
“Things haven’t been good. Can I ask you for a favor?”
“Hajra, I’m not sure if I can help you……..”
“Sonia! I would never put your safety in jeopardy. I would never do that. But here’s a letter for my family in Missouri. Can you mail it?”
As she handed me the letter, I sensed her arm tensing up.
We both looked up and he was there, menacingly looking down at the letter.
He grabbed her arm……. firmly and it looked like it was hurting her.
“Let’s go home”. He said as he took the letter from me and tore it up.
I was numb. I was quiet. I had seen it. Him holding her arm so tight that his knuckles were white. The look of defeat and pain and sadness and helplessness on her young face. She remained composed even though she was paler than before.
He pulled her away. Then he turned to me and said
“Doctor Sahab! Please don’t make my wife crazy with your liberal nonsense. She’s a simple woman. She knows her duty to me. Stay out of it”.
I was quiet and scared.
“I don’t like bitches”, he continued. “I won’t be so nice in the future”.
“How dare you talk to Sonia like that? She didn’t do anything. She doesn’t even talk to me about it. Why would you call her names? You have no respect for anyone”.
His grip on her arm tightened. She was visibly wincing but stood her ground.
“Bye Sonia! I wish you so many good things. Thanks for being such a good friend”.
And they started to leave. As I saw their receding backs a wave of emotion and jarring realizations washed over me.
This woman stood up for me even though she knew she’d have to pay for it with her body and soul.
This woman called me her friend even though I have deliberately stayed away from her problems.
This woman, in all her problems, didn’t forget her duty to her friend. She spoke up for me even though he was hurting her.
This woman asked for my help and I couldn’t even promise to mail the letter.
This woman is my sister, my friend, my rock. And I couldn’t do anything for her?
This woman, if she goes home with him tonight, may not see the light of day tomorrow.
This woman has a child who needs his mother.
This woman deserves a better man and a better life.
This woman needs to be rescued. Only a woman can be her salvation. She has already proved to be my salvation. Now I have to prove to be hers.
I ran after them and took hold of his arm, as tight as I could.
“Hajra is coming with me. And if you stop her, we will call 911”.
Hajra broke off from him quietly and with her boy on her hip, came with me.
Her family reached New York City from Missouri the next day. Hajra left with them.
Hajra got married again. To another guy. Her first husband married another girl too. Hajra gave birth to more kids. She found her happiness again.
I keep my eyes and ears open for abuse now. It helps me be an advocate. It helps me empower women. It helps me tell women that there was a life with abuse and there is another life to be had after abuse. Sometimes there’s a thunderstorm, only to reveal the most beautiful rainbow.