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Because I Said So: 33 Mothers Write About Children, Sex, Men, Aging, Faith, Race, and Themselves

The Scarlet Letter Z

Asra Q. Nomani

Ugly whispers about me began long before I found myself, in the summer of 2004, standing before a massive green door that led into the mosque in the town that I have known as my home since I was a girl of ten. The door stood in front of me like an entryway into my own personal hell.

My local community of Muslims -- interconnected via the Internet with like-minded Muslims globally -- had rebuked me for giving birth to a child out of wedlock and living without shame with this fact, then writing about it publicly to defend the rights of women who were quietly punished for similar cultural trespasses in the far corners of the world. From the pulpit of our mosque, a Ph.D. student called unchaste women "worthless." In the grocery store, an elder I had called "uncle" since my childhood days averted his eyes from mine when I passed him in the fruit section. A professor told his children to stay away from me. My family lost Muslim friendships of thirty years, relationships considered solid since we first made this town our home.

Criticism and condemnation seemed to come from everywhere: a Charleston, West Virginia, man wrote that I should stay in the shadows: "It would have been best if the facts of [your son's] birth had not been so callously flaunted ... Do you HAVE to rub it in?" When a Muslim immigrant said I was unfit to be a leader because of my unwed motherhood, an American convert responded, "... why not just make her wear a big red Z on all of her clothes, for zina, so everyone can steer clear and judge her for the rest of her life, like the adulteress in The Scarlet Letter?" Finally, the men at my mosque were putting me on trial, trying to banish me -- a symbolic exile from our community.

It was my mother, Sajida, strong and supportive and curious, who first sought out Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel. "You are Hester Prynne," she told me when she closed the cover. I read it next, and she was right: the elders of our mosque were like the seventeenthcentury Puritans in The Scarlet Letter who sentenced a single mother, Hester Prynne, to forever wear the letter A on her chest as punishment for the adultery in which she had conceived a child.

Three hundred years later, I was being subjected to the same experience of religious scrutiny, censure, and community rejection in a country that was founded on religious freedom. But could I garner anywhere near the strength of Hester's inner character in the inquisition that I faced? To walk into my house of worship was to invite the demons of hatred into my life. With a deep breath I opened the door, my son scampering inside ahead of me.

A throng of bearded men, in sad-colored garments and gray, steeple-crowned hats, intermixed with women, some wearing hoods, and others bareheaded, was assembled in front of a wooden edifice, the door of which was heavily timbered with oak, and studded with iron spikes.

An assembly of my community sat, mostly men with beards, crocheted prayer caps, and dim-colored pants and T-shirts; others were clean-shaven, intermixed with women hooded with hijab, the head covering of Muslim women. I tucked my jet black hair into the hood of the oversize black, hooded jacket I had won in a beach volleyball tournament in my younger days. Like Hester most of her life, hiding her lush hair under a cap, I was making myself asexual in this world in which my sexuality had become the evidence of my criminality. But my jacket had the label "Six Pack," insider volleyball lingo for the power of a hard-driven spike hitting an opponent's face.

I took a seat at one end of the cafeteria-style tables arranged in a U. At the head of the table, a gray-haired, bearded, casually dressed elder, a university professor, got down to business. He pulled strips of paper with names typed on them out of a plastic Ziploc sandwich bag. He read the names on the slips of paper as if he were the master of ceremonies at a carnival drawing winners for raffle prizes. In fact, these were the names of those who would be the jury for the secret tribunal that the professor and the other leaders of the mosque had initiated against me. The judges at this "Ziploc justice" trial would be the five-member board of trustees that ran the mosque.

My crimes? In October 2003, I had walked through the front door of my mosque on the first night it opened, my infant son, Shibli, on my hip, instead of taking the rear entrance designated for women. I sat in the secluded women's balcony that night, but eleven days later, I walked through the front door and into the main hall, which is reserved for men. Then, when the mosque elders wouldn't meet with me, I wrote about the rights denied women in mosques such as mine, drawing attacks on my family and myself. But questioning the leadership and policies of the mosque wasn't enough to earn the full wrath of my community. My greatest offense was being an unwed mother.

She had wandered, without rule or guidance, in a moral wilderness; as vast, as intricate and shadowy, as the untamed forest, amid the gloom ...

From my first memories, my life has been defined by a search for community. I was born in India but came to America at the age of four to join my mother and father, arriving with my older brother, Mustafa. Our parents had settled in New Jersey so that my father, Zafar, could pursue his academic career. I loved the one-story red house that we called home ...


Because I Said So: 33 Mothers Write About Children, Sex, Men, Aging, Faith, Race, and Themselves
by by Kate Moses and Camille Peri

  • hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Harper
  • ISBN-10: 0060598786
  • ISBN-13: 9780060598785