#IWD2021: In honour of Nawal El-Sadawy, the woman who inspired me to rethink Allah

by Asiya Hameed

There are many reasons to write about the plight of women at any given time and not just on Women’s History Month. I was thinking about this when I saw the YNaija call for Op-eds, and so briefly dismissed it. Until my personal hero, Nawal El-Sadawy suddenly died on March 21, 2020. This is the woman who inspired me to taste my period blood.

I have introduced many a fellow Muslim sister to the works of Nawal El-Sadawy – the Egyptian feminist firebrand writer who inspired many generations of Muslim women. This however, isn’t about my lifelong commitment to getting as many Muslim women and girls to read the works of Nawal El-Sadawy and similar contemporary Muslim feminist writers like Mona El-Tahawy.

Nor is it about mourning the loss of such an accomplished woman to the cold hands of death, and in Women’s History Month no less. This is about counting the ways in which the work of Nawal and audacious thinkers like her have transformed my worldview and as a result my life.

I read Woman At Point Zero – Nawal’s 1975 book about a woman unjustly sentenced to death for the self-defence murder of her abuser, 10 years ago. I was a scrawny 13-year-old who was devastated at the changes her body was going through and all the ways in which society’s response to this change I neither had a say in, nor even wanted made me hate the said body.

My first period, some 6 months prior, had been an exercise in self-loathing. Why? I was forced for the 6 days its painful course lasted, to keep my hands off the holy Qur’an because my body was, ‘unclean while it bleeds.’  I couldn’t perform the prayers that kept me close to Allah while I bled for the same reason.

Ages 12-15 were very important years for me because they represent a change in the course of my life that will affect how I present to the world for a very long time. I had drawn closer to Allah at 11 in dread mostly, but also because of a growing connection with religion. Thanks to a growing desire to be heard that was met by deafening silence from the people in my life who could have helped with that – my mom sits smack in the middle of this table. I sought Allah as the listening ear that I needed but could find in no one in my life.

My growing desire to draw closer to Allah made me come face-to-face with the deeply rooted injustice of the Muslim faith – as seen through the male gaze that predominates it, to women. It started small, with the injunction against nudity making every inch of my body nude, save for my palms and face where a man is only nude from his navel to his knees. Then it ballooned over the years as I began to see increasingly constricting injunctions curtailing female freedom that could only be explained by understanding that the injunctions sprouted in the little minds of 7th century Bedouin men and later got passed off as Allah’s message to humankind. Any other explanation is an indictment on Allah, and I wouldn’t have that.

Woman At Point Zero made me see the grand plan behind the ill-conceived worldview that made those Bedouin men think a reductive theology like that can stand scrutiny. It made me see the cost of success of that theology – the millions of silenced lives that dared to question the absurdity of it all. Above all, it made me dare to challenge myself to redefine my relationship with Allah.

A dinner in blood

If you are anything like me who was born and raised in the core Northern region if Nigeria, in a Muslim family, the first thing you learn about periods is how filthy they are. When I had my first, despite never having been told that if I touched anything while on my period the thing will become unholy, I felt that way. I rinsed and scrubbed everything I touched and when the bleeding came to a slow trickling stop 6 days later I scrubbed my body like a soot encrusted pot for hours, wishing the filth be cleaned off my body. If anyone had told me then a time would come when I would dip a finger in my blood-soaked vagina and lick the blood soiled finger I would have called them insane without missing a beat. I did it, however.

I had just finished reading Caitlin Moran’s How To Be A Woman, a fun read that is radical for a Muslim girl in Katsina. I had been toying with the idea of damning the consequences and performing my voluntary prayers, at least, while I bled. The simple question, “What is it about my monthly bleeding which is Allah’s merciful design of renewal integrated into my mortal body that is so abhorrent I would be denied communion with Him because of it?” wouldn’t stop ringing in my head. I couldn’t find any logical answer, but overcoming indoctrination often takes drastic measures, which is exactly what licking my period blood was for me. After that I couldn’t be stopped.

I prayed whenever I felt like it, fasted if I felt like it, and used the complete Qur’an whenever I felt the impulse to. It was my rebellion and I pursued it with a vengeance. Allah was still a male-figure divinity in my mind at the time, but that changed over time.

The death of fear

One of the things that keep people from rebellion when it comes to religion is fear. The fear of social ostracism. The fear of eternal damnation. The fear of grave consequences in the here and now.

I dealt with the first fear by keeping my rebellion to myself, a gift of sort that I give to myself in honour of my unwavering love for my womanhood. The second I dealt with by slowly transforming Allah into the image of my likeness – once He was, now She is. This too I keep to myself and a handful of friends who understand. The last I came to understand is irrational fear rooted in nothing.

I took stock years later and realised my life got so much better after I took the reins of my faith away from the hands of the men who are front and centre in Islam and into my own hands. There were no grave consequences, just greater stability in my beliefs and sanity.

The fear died in me partly because I fed the light of knowledge into the dark recesses of my mind it occupied and partly because I could look up to women like Mona El-Tahawy and Nawal El-Sadawy who live unchained by the expectations of a deeply flawed patriarchal Islam.

A life, I came to accept, is only worth living that is lived authentically. I foreswore fear for a worthwhile life thanks to Nawal El-Sadawy and in time Mona El-Tahawy, and I have never felt more liberated.

I dared to challenge and I am grateful I did.

Asiya Hameed* is a Muslim feminist writer fixated on wrecking the patriarchy from the shadows.

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