Written by Fatima Naqvi.
I knew there would be whispers about me when I left. Whispers that would viciously attack my decision to study abroad in China for my junior year of high school. I never knew precisely what was said about me, but I could guess at the meanings of the accusing stares and sly comments.
I imagine that they called me a whore or lamented that I had once been a very good girl, because of course, it was only the “loose-moraled girls” that left the supervision of home. It didn’t matter that my reasons for studying abroad were fueled by a desire to become fluent in Mandarin and to share my own religion/culture with the Chinese people; the only thing that my community saw was a girl leaving home without an adult to check her behavior.
My parents tried not to voice their concerns about my suddenly shattered reputation in the community, but I could tell that it bothered them. After all, it wasn’t just me being whispered about, it was my family too. What kind of parents would allow their female teenager to romp around the world, all by herself? The character and principles of my family were called into question for no reason other than that I would be away from home for nine months. I was judged not on what I did do, but what I could do. It is unusual for a Muslimah to be independent of her family for such a long period of time before getting married and so I was tried, judged and sentenced for the freedom that I experienced, not the choices that I made with that freedom.
The suspicion that I was subjected to is indicative of a bigger problem within our communities: single Muslimahs are not trusted to live by themselves for any long period of time. This doesn’t apply to just the possibility of studying abroad, but also the higher education institutions that we may choose to study at. We are always encouraged to study close to home and while part of the reasoning is so we can spend more time with our beloved families, the more sinister and unspoken reason is that our reputations will be at stake if we do not.
A person’s character and sense of faith should matter more than where he or she lives. It is possible to engage in sin while living at home and equally as possible to refrain from sin while living away from home. Yet, in the eyes of the community, where you live could be the difference between being perceived as a “model Muslimah” and being suspected of having “loose morals.”
Unsurprisingly enough, this same mindset does not apply to the males in our community. They, of course, are trusted to maintain good faith no matter where they live. This perhaps is a separate issue to discuss, but the bottom line is that our communities have maintained a backward perception of Muslimahs studying away from home for far too long.
The only way to change this attitude is to continue pursuing our goals, while maintaining a strong faith. As always, we will carry on and hope that someday our communities might catch up.