Beneath Her Headscarf – Story 2

“Hello, salaam alaykum,’’ Ruqoyah greeted the person on the other end of the phone after she finished her morning adhkar.

“Wa alaykum salaam,’’ Aa’siyah replied. “How are you Umm Ra’ianah?’’

“Alhamdulillah, I’m fine my sister,’’ she said, suppressing her excitement. She wanted to let her know of what transpired last night, but she was still finding a way to break the good news. She then decided to go for the guessing game. “Can you guess what happened last night?’’ She closed her eyes to savor the experience again.

“Ukhtee, I know you don’t play lotto, so you couldn’t have won the lottery. Quit the suspense and tell me.’’

“I’m free!’’ Ruqoyah shouted.

“What? You were free last night? What does that mean?’’

“Allah answered my prayers.’’ came Ruqoyah’s response

“Really, Ruqoyah, I don’t understand what it is you’re saying. What are you talking about?’’

“Last night, Ismail sla—” she bit her lips, she didn’t want to expose Ismail’s faults, “Ismail divorced me last night.’’

Aa’siyah couldn’t believe her ears. What was she hearing? Hadn’t they been discussing khula  yesterday because she had said Ismail would not divorce her?

“What changed his mind?’’ She asked.

“Oh’ he didn’t do it conventionally. Allah just helped me.’’ Ruqoyah gave her friend a vivid account of the previous night incident. She along the line betrayed her initial resolution not to expose Ismail, as she felt compelled to tell her he had slapped her because it was the means through which her divorce had been pronounced. After listening to her account, Aa’siyah advised her to remain calm and to strengthen her connection with Allah. The Iddah would be full of tests, she told her. She proposed to pay her a visit, but Ruqoyah declined citing that she didn’t want Ismail to accuse her of being the chief plotter.

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Ismail had never been a fan of Aa’siyah. From the moment Ruqoyah started to attend the fellowship’s alqah, he had tried his best to strain her relationship with Aa’siyah. And to some degree he was successful in doing that. Frequently, he would pull Ruqoyah to the side and tell her to stay away from innovators. Of course he was subtle, he didn’t mention Aa’siyah by name, but he would make sure she fitted every descriptions he gave.

‘You see, stay away from those sisters who speak in front of men in conferences’—he knew Aa’siyah was the Ameerat of MSA and would usually speak at public events.

‘Stay away from those who wear colorful Hijab and do not wear the Jilbaab,‘ he would hint. It was normative for Aa’siyah to wear abayahs, ankara skirts and blouses, and she liked colorful hijabs. So with every discussion, Ismail tried to break their friendship. ‘Remember, Imam Ahmad warned that those who show love to Ahl’ Bid’ah are also part of them,’ he would conclude with this each time.

In his room, Ismail overheard the entire conversation. He had assumed Ruqoyah forgot about the oath he made her when they got married. After inflicting pain on his wife’s face last night, he was full of remorse. He had slept with a heart heavy. Ismail, normally, was emotionally abusive, but not physically. He glanced around his room, gazing at the stack of Arabic books on the stool by his bed and thought of how he could reverse the oath. He searched through his Fiqh books to see how Ruqoyah’s claim to divorce could be annulled, but he couldn’t find enough substantial proofs, and that was when the idea to involve the local Imam on the issue came to him. He wasn’t ready to let her go without a fight.

***

Ruqoyah arrived at As-Salam Central Mosque ten minutes after from the scheduled time. The Imam had called her on Wednesday morning that he would like to see her at his place by 11:00am the following day. The Imam’s house was a fifteen minute walk from Ruqoyah’s house. The house was joined to the mosque structure at the rear; a wall separated it from the female prayer space. It was a mini flat with three bedrooms with a small room which the Imam used as his office. When Ruqoyah got inside the Imam’s office, she was not surprised to find her husband there. She already knew that he was going to attempt a maneuver. She was prepared.

The venue would have been at Abu Mamluk’s place —the leader of the fellowship where Ismail and Ruqoyah met— but because of a conflict which had ensued between him and Ismail, that was untenable.

Imam Faruq was a revered figure in the community. Ruqoyah held him in high esteem, so she wanted to present her case diligently. Although, not seen as biased, the fact that he was pro-polygyny and a staunch advocate of male dominance sent a feeling of trepidation over Ruqoyah.

“As Salaam alaykum,’’ Umm Aiman, the Imam’s youngest wife greeted Ruqoyah as she set down two cups of water on the table in front of the couple. Immediately, Ismail helped himself to a cup of water, gulping it like a person lost in the arid desert for days. His attitude irritated Ruqoyah. He couldn’t even thank the woman first. She shot him a dirty look, but seeing that the Imam was watching her she quickly controlled herself, and thanked the Imam’s wife.

“Wa iyyak,’’ Umm Aiman replied, and then furthered, “Why have we not been seeing you at Sisters’ Circle? It’s been a long time. I hope everything is fine.’’

Ruqoyah forced a smile and said everything was okay. “Ehn ehn, before I forget, Kareemah is getting

married on the sixteenth of next month, make sure you….’’

“Thank you!’’ The Imam interjected. “Ahn-ahn! Don’t you see that Sister Ruqoyah is here for something else? Or, did I call her here for you? You can finish your small talks after we’re done. Salaam alaykum.” And with that, Umm Aiman disappeared from the living room.

Imam Faruq cleared his throat before making a long invocation similar to the type which he makes at the opening of Jumuah sermon.

“Amaa ba’had,’’ he paused, and then continued, “Sister Ruqoyah, your husband said he overhead you telling a friend over the phone, that you’re now free. He said you’re claiming to be divorced while he didn’t pronounce divorce on you.’’

The Imam stopped for a moment, gazed at the couple, ran his hands on his henna dyed beard and asked, “Is this true?’’

“Thank you, Imam. Allah will increase your knowledge and status,’’ Ruqoyah began, ‘’ it is true that I told my friend that I am now free—

“You see,  I told  you….’’  Ismail interrupted,  not

allowing Ruqoyah finish her statement. Imam Faruq shot him a quelling look and he quickly kept quiet.

“And why would you say that when your husband said he didn’t divorce you?’’ He questioned.

Ruqoyah redressed her niqab to give her eyes enough seeing space and then replied, “Imam, one night shortly after our nikkah Ismail swore by Allah that he would never beat, nor slap me, and he took an oath that if he does so, I can ask him anything and he would be bound to do it.’’

The Imam exhaled. He glanced at Ismail, disappointment written all over his visage. “He beat you?’’ He turned his face to Ruqoyah.

“No, but he slapped me in the face.’’

“Brother Ismail, do you deny the accusation?’’ Ismail stuttered as he tried to say something. “Ehn, ehn, what happened was that?’’ He tried to excuse himself but Imam Faruq cut him off.

“This is not a matter of ehn ehn, did you slap her or not?’’

By this time Ruqoyah had ducked her head in her hijab. She was embarrassed to see a different side of Imam Faruq who had always appeared to her as gentle and jovial, but at the same time her respect for the Imam grew exponentially. Here was a conservative Imam standing for women’s right.

“I did, but…”

“Didn’t you fear Allah, akhi. How could you do something like that? Is this the Sunnah of the prophet, salallahu alehi wa salam? Have you forgotten that the Prophet never beat any of his wives or women for that matter? Couldn’t you follow this Sunnah? Have you forgotten that he also said that it is haram to strike someone on the face? Even animals are prohibited to be hit on the face. And yet, we will be taking pride in our beards and siwak, saying we are the Ahl Sunnah. What Sunnah is there in this? I must say I am really disappointed in you.”

Imam Faruq fell silent for a while. His gaze was fixed on Ismail for a long moment and at the end he turned to Ruqoyah. “What he did was truly haram, but that didn’t amount to a divorce,” he said in a gentle tone.

“Imam, but he took an oath that if he ever hits me, I will have the right to ask for anything and he will be obliged to comply,” Ruqoyah protested, tears forming around her eyes.

She however was determined not to breakdown in the presence of the Imam. Although, deep down she felt a storm of tears building up, she tried to explain her stand on the divorce and to unwrap the injustices and insolent behaviors of Ismail, she still had to make sure no weeping took place for the Yoruba people have a saying that ‘a person who cries during arbitrary talks is a mischief-maker who only desires to gain support of the arbitrator through victimizing another’. ‘Asunkun ro’jó ile ni’ntu.’

“Alright, I think I understand you better now. He promised to grant you anything you want if such a thing happens and now you want divorce?”

“Yes, Masha Allah.”

“Brother Ismail, is that true?” After a moment of hesitation Ismail replied faintly, “Yes.”

The Imam gave a heavy ‘hmmm’. He was not pleased with the way the issue was going. He knew that his hands had been tied by Ismail’s oath. On no grounds could he order Ruqoyah to stay with him, but still he didn’t want them apart. Divorce is not a simple decision to make over a single night’s disagreement. Islam has permitted divorce because of its pragmatism, but not for every case. Not all couples are destined to grow old together. It is a blessing from Allah for cases where the incompatibilities of the couple are just too profound for any reasonable reconciliation to occur, but it is not a solution for fiddling issues. Imam Faruq wanted to quote the famous Hadith about how divorce is the halal action that, although permissible, is still hated by Allah but he decided against it because he knew scholars have decried the narration as not being authentic. He asked them to excuse him as he exited the office.

At his absence the room fell quiet. Ruqoyah reached for the glass of water brought by Umm Aiman, and took a sip. She relaxed as the water made its way down her parched throat. She glanced at Ismail who had retreated to the couch at the farthest corner and was shuffling through the pages of the Qur’an, pretending to be looking for an ayah. She saw penitence in him right there, and she almost felt sorry for him. But when the different actions of Ismail during their eighteen month relationship began to flash through her mind, she saw an entirely different man—and she could not live with that man again.

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Imam Faruq came back after having thought out a way to salvage their knot. He would ask Ruqoyah what her grievances had been, and then try to reprimand Ismail harshly, urge Ruqoyah to be patient, before demanding an oath from Ismail to treat her honorably. And with that, there would be no more talk of divorce.

“Sister Ruqoyah, why do you want to seek for divorce?’’

That was the straw which broke the camel’s back. Ruqoyah had initially resolved to shield Ismail’s faults, but when it seemed speaking out would be the only way the Imam could fully understand the solemn nature of their issue, she decided to tell all. What he heard, made Imam Faruq very furious at Ismail. Ruqoyah left nothing unreported. She narrated with adept precision each of the events, and at some time, adding the date they occurred. The days of emotional abuse, coercion on false religious grounds, sexual abuse, refusal to pay back monies lent, the strange fatawa, the no-travelling law, the no-having-friends law, the no ante natal law, and all other draconian self-made laws enacted by Ismail. Even Ismail was astonished by her ability to recall all of it.

“Imam Faruq, I thank you for your efforts,’’ She said at the end of her long speech. “I pray God rewards you for your good works. I have prayed Istikhaara about this decision, and as it seems, Allah has been shown me the way out. Ismail and I have lived together as Allah willed, but now, I want us to go our separate ways.”

Imam Faruq rubbed his beard one more time and then cast a deliberate glance at Ismail.

“Brother Ismail, it seems Sister Ruqoyah is totally fed up with this marriage. She is clearly unhappy and wants out.

And with the oath you have taken upon yourself, the best and wisest thing would be for you to let her go.’’ He fell silent for a moment.

“Ismail,” he removed the ‘Brother’ and that made Ismail know the end was near. “I advise you to let her go in a beautiful manner.”

Ruqoyah felt the words make their way into her ears.

Three months waiting period separated her from freedom.

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