Suliya was on her bed and on Facebook this night. Abdulbasit had just gone to sleep on his own twin bed at the other side of this tiny room. It was a little hot in the room – with lights out, but Suliya always wore her ankara wrapper and a t-shirt to sleep. Her little boy turned seven last month, and she had been careful to make sure he never saw her naked ever since he turned four, a year his father left them, according to Suliya, and a year after Suliya decided to call the marriage quits, if you were to ask Jamiu, Abdulbasit’s father, who prefers the nickname, Abu Tufail. The boy, suffering from cold and nasal congestion, began to snore, and this propelled Suliya out of bed, guided by her phone’s torch light, to the stool beside the standing mirror where she kept her lotions and pomades and make-up kit. She took a balm and proceeded to rub Basit’s chest and neck with it.
Rubbing the boy’s chest reminded her of a time in the past, a time when he had done something similar to Jamiu, who having gotten drenched in the rain earlier that day came home shivering. She was filled with nostalgia, and that feeling confused her. She went back to the bed but couldn’t go to sleep for another hour. Was she missing touching Jamiu or was she missing touching a grown man, period? She decided it had to the be the latter because there was not a chance in the world she was missing Jamiu knowing all what he put her through. As she struggled to go to sleep, counting numbers backward from 100 which she learned from a psychologist on a scene on an American TV show, memories of the final moments of her marriage came back to draw out even more fluids of pain from her insomniac eyes.
It all began when she read a book. For weeks after reading the book she would sometimes sit and stare at whatever was in front of her for long periods of time. Then she read more books and watched some really cool, inspirational videos on Instagram and YouTube. Videos of speakers talking about confidence, self-esteem, self-love and care, spiritual fulfillment and building bridges. Unlike the author of the book, these speakers were mostly Muslim women living and working in Lagos, Nigeria, so she could see herself in them. There was one particular speaker and financial coach she admired a lot and it happened that she was holding a workshop near the elementary school where Suliya taught one afternoon. Suliya had known about the event for a month and on the day of the event she dressed in a way slightly different from her normal wears. You see, starting from her third year in the university, she had, with some subconscious reluctance, embraced the belief that a Muslim woman can only wear a specific type of overall and set of colors. So, when Abu Tufayl saw her arrive at the house in a silky pashmina scarf and black abaya with gold design on the sleeves, you can imagine the consternation on his face. He was in a word flabbergasted, and he was not the one with enough emotional intelligence to delay the condemnation or confrontation over the clothing to a different, more appropriate time when she might be calm or at least less embarrassed enough to listen to him. In his defense, maybe it was the fact that Ustadh Abu Nur was with him that moment in the sitting room, with an expectant and telling gaze that made him go so strong against Suliya. He had to show that he would not tolerate heresy under his roof.
For months after that show down, if they were not arguing about dressing, he was verbally scolding her for going against his orders by being on social media. The marriage came to a deadlock when Suliya completely stopped going to the halqah, religious gathering, they both used to attend weekly. She felt the halqah was too conformist, socially restrictive, spiritually elitist and intellectually deadening. She also felt ostracized by the women of the halqah who, she assumed, had been warned by their husbands not to associate with her. During those months, she would leave work and go home, tend to her child, and live each day as though she was in an open prison. Her husband barely spoke with her, and the little time he did, he spoke to her, rather than with her.
One day she got a whiff from a friend in the halqah who secretly kept contact that her husband was getting a second wife. When she heard this, she wept and became more depressed. She felt like she had been betrayed by the man whom she fought her folks – and for a while stopped talking to – just to be married to him. The man who was the reason why she ended up doing her NYSC in Lagos instead of Kano where she always dreamt of going. One night after isha prayer, she went to Abu Tufayl’s room, and confronted him.
“Is it true that you’re about to marry a second wife?” She said as soon as she shut the door while standing.
“Yes.” He answered, maintaining eye contact as he sat on the bed, phone in hand.
“How could you! Jamiu! I gave you everything when I married you!” Tears were now forming in the corners of her eyes.
“I am within my rights, and you haven’t been an obedient wife of late.”
“Please don’t marry a second wife. You know I’m jealous, I can’t handle it.”
He kept quiet for a while and continued to stare at her. She stood and remained quiet as if waiting for a verdict. Then when she turned to leave, hand on the door knob, he responded. The response raised her heartbeat and she turned back to him with a facial expression that said come again, and he did repeat himself. “I will not marry a second wife if you return to your old ways and become obedient again.”
“My old ways?”
“Yes, your old ways of sunnah.”
“Okay, I agree.”
“Then don’t worry about thaniyah then. I won’t marry a second wife.”
She left his room a bit relieved that night, but she couldn’t help but wonder what he meant by old ways and obedience. A week later, she would find out that her husband had a precise, quantifiable way of measuring old ways and obedience. He came home with a list of dos and don’ts. Adhering to the list shows going back to the old ways and being obedient.
No scarves, or pashminas, or half hijabs. No abayas. Only overall hijab, which he called khimar. She must wear socks and gloves when outside the house. She’s not allowed to be on Facebook, and under no circumstance should a man send her a message on WhatsApp. Passwords to her social media accounts must be submitted. She can go somewhere only after he has given expressive permission. If she needs to quickly visit her parents or friends, she may not do so unless she had asked him and he had approved. She must start attending the halqah again. These were the old ways she should go back to. The new instructions include that she must not read books that are not fundamentally Islamic or written by Muslims.
I’m not going to adhere to this ridiculous list. That was her response. Firmly and confidently said.
“Then you’re divorced!”
He was fuming, livid.
Suliya could not believe her ears. She was expecting their deal to be renegaded, not this. He should have said that he would marry a second wife then, but he showed Suliya she had no idea who she was in the game with.
This was no time to allow ego to dominate her actions, so in a calm, apologetic voice Suilya said, “Please be reasonable here, Jamiu. We have a child. Tell me you didn’t mean that.”
He heard defeat in her voice, and this massaged his resolve. “No, I mean it unless you adhere to my list, my rules.”
“I won’t.” She said calmly.
Both families got involved and their parents tried to resolve the issue, however neither the husband nor the wife yielded, and so she completed her iddah, period of separation, on the first night of that year’s Ramadan, and she left his house that same night, her luggage and Basit’s luggage stuffed in her father’s Toyota Highlander as the Imam’s recital from the taraweeh prayer in the local mosque fluttered in the background.
Before she finally fell asleep this night, she remembered how, minutes before sunset on that final day of Shawwal, while observing the waning sun and the coming dusk on the horizon, dust falling behind motorcycles plying the untarred road outside of the bungalow, her husband had hugged her from behind, and said: “I love you, Suliya. Please just do what I want and I will take my divorce back.” And she had stood there in silence, looking at the beautiful sky, and looking at something else – a future she wanted desperately to love and be certain of, but which nonetheless looked blurry and terrifying.
The next morning, a wife and a husband living in a three-bedroom flat in a neighborhood in Abule Egba area of Lagos, which some would argue is technically part of Ogun State, are sifting through a pile of folders. The husband looked at his watch now, and seeing that it was five minutes past eleven, told his wife he was heading out to the clinic where he works as a visiting doctor. He kissed the wife on the cheek and said salaam, to which she responded, fee amanillah, You’re under God’s protection.
The woman poured herself a cup of orange juice and resumed sifting through the folders, looking for good matches. In each of the folder were profiles of single Muslim men and women from all over Lagos mainland and island looking to get married. The couple as a part-time enterprise offered matchmaking services to some Muslim organizations and individuals willing to pay. The wife who held a master’s degree in Marriage and Relationship Therapy from the University of Manchester also did marriage counselling. This morning she opened a young woman’s folder for the first time, read her profile, stared for a considerably long time on her photograph, smiled, and then set it apart from other folders.
Miles away in Ikeja, Sharaf was on the computer at work, when he got an email from his friend in Canada. The email was about a job opening at the company where he worked. It was an internal knowledge and Sharaf was a perfect candidate with his experience and qualification. Sharaf called the friend back instantly and he gave Sharaf more information, including the pay. All Sharaf needed to do was apply and the friend would talk to the hiring manager who was his boss and friend over there. Sharaf was excited, even though he hadn’t decided if he wanted to relocate overseas or not. By the time, they finished talking it was time for lunch break.
It was his routine to go to the food canteen just opposite of his office building for his lunch break, but this noon he did not leave for break but sent someone to get him food because Amina had called and asked him to accept a package on her behalf at work. Months later, Sharaf would wish he had just gone to break that noon and not stay behind. And Amina would wish that she had not called him, either.
But when he got home that night, the impact of that noon did not transpire, at all. In fact, it was a regular night in their household. They ate dinner, watched the NTA network news, discussed the possibility of the young Muslim man in the Lagos state gubernatorial race emerging victorious. Amina thought with the collapse of a former’s governor empire as the unchallenged kingmaker of Lagos, the young man stood the chance. Sharaf was more on the skeptical side of the discourse and said the more established party candidates were more likely to win.
Later in their room, while changing to pajamas, Sharaf told Amina about the email he received earlier that day. She listened to him from the front of the large dresser where she sat, applying lotion. She told him she had been thinking about relocation since that Saturday evening, and she was more on the side of keeping their options opened, but she preferred to stay in Nigeria. “But God knows best,” she cautioned. “Let’s pray istikhara over it.” And Like everything else, they both stood up later that night and performed tahajud then offered a two-unit prayer for the purpose of istikharah, seeking guidance.
Thank you for reading. This series is sponsored by Read For Growth.
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