By Jennifer Zobair
When people picture an exhausted mother, they conjure a woman up all night with a colicky infant, or a lawyer working through her lunch hour so she can leave early enough to make it to the daycare center before it closes, or an author revising her novel while helping her son study for the SAT. I have been tired in all of these ways, like so many of us have.
This week, I was tired in a different way.
Mothers spend a lot of time making the small spheres of our children’s lives as good as possible – feeding them healthy food, making them feel safe and loved, imparting our values. We drive them to soccer games, doctor appointments, and play dates. Muslim mothers in America, though, also spend a lot of time trying to make the larger world a better place for our children. Many of us actively engage in the cause of fighting bigotry. We speak to interfaith groups. We take to social media. We pen essays sharing our lived experience and op/eds about stereotypes and representation. We write novels about strong, successful Muslim women.
And sometimes we can do all of that right, to the best of our ability, and it still won’t matter. In Islam, we believe we will be rewarded for our intentions. But when the goal is making the world a better and safer place for our children, sometimes that feels heartbreakingly inadequate.
Last week, I participated in an interview with a reporter covering the anthology I’ve co-edited, about feminism and religion. I very much enjoyed my conversation with her. She was enthusiastic about the book. She was engaged with the issues. I spoke to her about the strides Muslim women are making to realize our equality, about the incredible scholarship being done by Muslim theologians to reclaim and reinterpret verses of the Qur’an that have suffered from patriarchal and sexist exegeses, and about my own journey as a Muslim woman, navigating both faith and feminism.
When the article came out, it was as though I had never spoken to her. While she quoted other editors and contributors about why they stay, I was reduced to the sensational lead to her piece, recounting—with no context or sense of what came after—my conversion to Islam in front of an imam who justified wife abuse by likening women to children.
The story about my conversion is true. But standing alone, it paints an inaccurate picture of Islam, the state of Muslim feminism, and of me, as an intelligent, self-respecting person.
I am more than the woman who converted in front of that imam. Islam is more than that imam’s views. And Muslim women fighting for our rights are so much more than the total silence afforded us in that piece.
As I read the article, I felt tears form. I have worked hard to change the narrative we tell about Muslims, especially Muslim women, in this country. I want my children to grow up in a more welcoming America. I believe I did that effort justice in the interview. Still, in the end, I felt like I had participated in something that reinforced the very stereotypes I’ve worked so hard to change. And I had feedback from Muslim women who felt that way as well.
In realizing that I had done my best, and it still didn’t matter, I was beyond weary. I was exhausted. I had another interview scheduled the next day, and all I wanted to do was cancel it.
As mothers we think we have to be perfect. We take care of everyone else first. But sometimes we have to take care of ourselves in order to properly care for others. This is what I told myself as I thought about backing out of the interview the following day.
Didn’t I deserve a break?
I shared my frustration about the article with my fourteen-year-old daughter, who is the motivation for so much of the work I do. She agreed that something had gone really wrong. I could see her searching for a way to make me feel better.
“Will this matter in twenty years?” she finally asked.
She was trying to remind me that the things we get upset or anxious about one day often seem unimportant the next. That this, too, would pass.
But in this case, I think the answer is yes. It will matter. Not my hurt or my personal sense of frustration. But the cumulative effect of news stories like this—because there are so many, because they occur even when there is no bad intent on the part of a reporter— will matter in twenty years. And as a mother, looking at my brilliant, beautiful Muslim daughter, how could I not care about that?
I don’t have great answers. I don’t have upbeat platitudes. Stereotypes about Muslims, despite all of the attention focused on the Muslim community after 9/11, remain depressingly intractable. The work is urgent, for our sake and that of our children. And yet, there will be times we will be exhausted from the struggle and need to take a step back and engage in radical self care. That is a very hard thing for a mother to do, but there will be days we need to allow ourselves to be weary, and kiss our kids, and trust that better days are coming, even if we don’t have the energy to do a single thing about it at that moment.
And sometimes, we’ll do all of that, and still do the interview the next day anyway. As I did last Friday, with the enormous hope and solemn prayer that it will not take twenty years to matter.