The Imam’s Daughter
by Dave Potter
Emma looked at herself in the mirror and sighed. Her heart felt heavy. She had dreaded this day for so long, but as she’d always known, it had come along. She’d wished that she could have changed things, altered the situation, but she knew that she couldn’t. Like her father had always said, ‘You make your bed and then you lie in it.’ Except this wasn’t exactly her who had to lie down was it? She had done the making though. She cast her mind back to how it had all come about.
It had been on a rainy October afternoon. To be honest, most afternoons in October are rainy in the North of England, but this one had been especially so. She’d been sitting in the college canteen nursing a cup of tea. Back then everything had been so different, so exciting. She’d left high school with six GCSEs and had enrolled at the local Sixth Form College to do her A-levels. She’d been really excited about going. “It’s loads better than school,” her mate’s sister Stacey had said. “It’s more free like and the teachers give you more respect. There’s loads of nice lads and all. You’ll have a right laugh there.” And it had been true, she had enjoyed it from the outset. Now only one thing was missing. She’d dumped her old boyfriend Steve from high school. He’d stayed at the school Sixth Form and so they were never together. That’s all that she needed; a boyfriend. That’’ when she’d heard his voice.
“Mind if I sit here?”
He was about twenty years old, with dark hair and an enchanting, exotic look about him. He wore a baggy tracksuit and sported a goatee beard. He was desparately handsome.
He’d sat down and they started to talk. He was Hassan, he was studying his A-levels too and his family were from the Yemen, a place that Emma had never even heard about. He lived in Shelton, near the railway station, where all the immigrants lived. He was funny, articulate and interesting. “Wanna go out tonight?” he asked.
She ummed and arred with the customary coyness before saying yes. That evening they went out on the town. It was the best night ever. Unlike all the other boys that she’d dated, he didn’t feel the need to get as drunk as a skunk whilst clubbing and in fact, he didn’t touch any alcohol at all. Instead, he simply took care of her every need and at the end of the night, put his arms around her and gave her the best kiss of her life. It was simply magical.
She was in love. And he was in love with him. They started to date regularly and then became boyfriend and girlfriend. She learnt about his life, that he had two sisters, that his father ran a taxi company, that he was a Muslim and that he wanted to become a social worker. She told him about her mum and dad, about her sister who had already left home and was living with a bloke in Cardiff and of her dream of becoming a schoolteacher. By day they met and over coffee and at night they hit the town or went for romantic walks in the Forest Park. Then, six months after they’d first met, Hassan asked her a question that took her very much aback.
“Emma, will you marry me?”
She had not expected that! They were too young for starters and well… well it was just such a big step to take. They hadn’t even slept together yet, let alone shared a flat. She mentioned these fears to him.
“But darling, we aren’t too young. In loads of countries, including Yemen, but even here too, people get married at our age and besides, I can’t live with you before marriage or sleep with you. You know I’m a Muslim and doing those things would be an insult to my religion. Besides, I like it that you are pure and we wait for the right time, you know?”
To be honest, she’d always admired that about him. Most lads only want to get a girl in bed, yet he had put it off and put it off so much so that it was her that was desperate for sex now.
“Don’t you love me?” he asked.
His eyes were imploring and she knew that he was the right man for her. “Yes, I will marry you Hassan,” she said and her heart overflowed with joy.
“Well then, we must talk to your parents then.”
Her parents! Oh my God, she’d forgotten about her parents! They’d want to know, they might not approve! Her father might not anyway. “Do we have to?” she asked.
“Of course,” he said, “it is the honourable thing to do.”
They knocked on the door of the council house where Mr. and Mrs. Machin lived with their younger daughter. Mrs. Machin opened the door. “Come on in duck,” she said to Emma, warily eyeing the foreign-looking man who followed behind her.
In the living room Mr. Machin was sat watching the Champions League game with a can of Stella in his hand. Hassan strode up to him and proferred his hand. “My name is Hassan Mubarak, sir and I should like to ask for your daughter’s hand in marriage.”
Mr. Machin was naturally taken aback. “You what?” he said.
“I should like to marry your daughter, sir,” he said. “To make her my wife.”
Mr. Machin gathered his wits. “Sorry mate, but you’ll make her no such thing. What on earth are you playing at Emma? Are you trying to give me a bloody heart attack or summit?”
“No dad, this is me boyfriend, Hassan, and we’d like to get married.”
“Well I’m sorry duck, but you conna. It just inna right.”
“What isn’t right, sir?”
“I’ll tell you what inna right mate. I’m not having my daughter marrying a bloody Paki, that’s what’s right. I’ve voted BNP for years to keep your lot out and this estate at least is as white as owt and she inna sullying it. Now mate, I dunna wish to be rude, but there’s the door. Go and use it! Marrying a Paki indeed, what a fucking joke!”
Emma was in tears. Hassan consoled her. “I’m sorry about that,” she said, but he’s always been racist.”
“It doesn’t matter,” he said.
She tried to live without him, but after three weeks found it impossible. They met in the canteen and she told him that she’d marry him whatever her parents said. “Then it is time that you met my family,” he replied.
They drew up outside a small terraced house in Shelton. He opened the car door for her and walked up to the building. “Please Emma, do not be shocked by my mother and sisters,” he said. Then he knocked on the door.
A man opened it. He was about fifty years old and wore baggy white clothes and a skullcap. He sported a wide smile and beard. “Hiya dad,” said Hassan, “this is Emma.”
They were invited in. Inside the living room though, Emma gave a start. There before her were stood three black shrouds. Only the dark eyes that stared out through a thin slit in the material revealed them to be human. “This is my mum, my sister Jamila and my sister Aisha,” said Hassan.
They sat down and Hassan’s sister’s brought out some samosas to eat. Hassan explained the situation to his father and the old man turned and smiled at Emma. “Well my dear, I trust the judgement of my son and you seem like a very pleasant girl. Of course, it is sad that your parents do not approve, but I can assure you that you will have my blessing, but only on one condition. You see, our faith demands that we marry one of our own and so unfortunately, for you to marry Hassan, I must insist that you become a Muslim. I am sorry, but there is nothing I can do about it, but I do hope that soon we will be welcoming you into this family.”
Afterwards Emma and Hassan had a long talk. “Why do your sisters and mum dress like that?” she asked.
“Our family is religious and in Islam women are instructed to dress modestly and not tempt men with their form. My sisters and mother have taken this to mean that they must keep themselves covered at all times.”
“But isn’t it hot and difficult to wear those clothes?”
“It may be, I don’t know, I don’t wear them do I?!”
She laughed at this. “But if I was a Muslim, would I have to wear them?”
“Not have to, these things are a matter of choice of course. Many Muslim women wear nothing like that, though most do wear a headscarf.”
Emma was now incredibly conscious of her tight top and figure-hugging jeans. “Would it please you if I wore a headscarf?” she asked.
“It would please me immensely,” said Hassan.
Then they moved onto the subject of religion. Would Emma mind converting? After some thought, she decided that she wouldn’t. She’d never been religious anyway, although she’d always had some vague sort of idea that God existed, and Hassan said that all you had to do was go down to the mosque and say a couple of sentences in the presence of some witnesses. That wouldn’t be hard would it? No.
Emma went home and decided to have another go with her dad. It was however, not successful. “Why on earth should you want to marry Osama’s fucking nephew?” he ranted. “That they’re killing our people with bloody bombs isn’t enough, now they’re taking our daughters away too!” Emma assured him that Hassan was not like that, but he wouldn’t listen. “It’s your Paki or us!” he declared in the end. Emma replied that she loved Hassan. “Well then, I have no daughter anymore. Go to your Paki and don’t come back. You’ve made your bed, now lie in it!”
Emma arrived at Hassan’s house in tears. Her fiancé wasn’t in but Jamila was and she consoled her. “We sisters have to stick together,” she said. Emma contrasted the difference in attitude between Hassan’s family and her own and felt ashamed. “Have you got a headscarf for me to wear when I become a Muslim?” Emma asked. Jamila went upstairs to get one.
Three weeks later she arrived at the mosque for her conversion. Emma was wearing a dove grey headscarf and long skirt. Jamila had brought the latter down with the headscarf saying that really, jeans were not appropriate for a Muslim girl. Not wishing to disagree, Emma put it on. Since then she’d always worn similar attire. It had gained her some funny looks in the college and the condemnation of some of her friends, but it was not a trial to wear. As she said the Shahada in front of the Imam, she was happy with the bed that she’d chosen to lie in.
A fortnight later they were married. Only Hassan’s family attended.
As Emma remembers the early days of her marriage, she recalls that they were a time of much happiness. Her wedding night with Hassan had been incredible and the day after they’d received the surprise of their lives when Mr. Mubarak announced that he had purchased a house three doors down for the use of the newly-married couple. Gradually they’d settled into a contented existence until, after about a month, Emma noticed a certain uneasiness about her husband whenever he was in her presence. She let it pass hoping that it would disappear, but a week later it was even more pronounced, so one evening so tackled him about it.
“It’s nothing,” he said.
But she knew that it was not nothing, so she questioned him further until eventually it was prized out.
“It’s just, well… I know I shouldn’t say it as it is your free choice and everything, but well… whenever we are out men look at you, because you’re beautiful of course, but well… my sisters never get that kind of attention and well…”
“…You’d like me to dress like them?”
“Well, yes, but no… you see, I want you to be happy in your dress. Don’t mind me, it’s nothing.”
Emma thought about the clothes that the Mubarak girls wore. They looked uncomfortable, hot and stifling. But… she loved her husband dearly and did not want to see him unhappy. After all, he was all the family that she had now. “I’ll wear them when I go out if you like,” she said.
Hassan’s eyes lit up immediately. “Would you mind?”
“Not at all.”
“I’ll arrange it immediately.”
Emma looked at the clothes lain out on the bed and felt strange. What would it be like to wear them? To change herself from Emma into some black ghost like Jamila and Aisha. The latter of those two girls held out a heavy black cloak for her. “Your abayah,” she said. Emma put it on. It encompassed everything. Then a headscarf was wound around her head and lastly came the veil, fastened around her head above the eyes and dropping down so that only a slit, with a thin piece of cotton down the middle remained. Emma looked at her new image in the mirror. Her blue eyes now appeared piercing and prominent. She felt a little scared. She did not recognise the girl that stared back.
“Let’s go for a walk so that you feel comfortable in your niqaab,” said Jamila.
As soon as they stepped outside the house, Emma was conscious of her attire. Veils were meant to deflect glances, but instead everyone seemed to be peering at her, the white girl dressed like a freak. Furthermore, the veil kept slipping and she was constantly adjusting it so that it did not obscure her vision. It was hot too. And all her sight to the left and right was gone. When she came to cross the road she had to turn her whole body. ‘I hate this,’ she said to herself, ‘I shall never wear it again.’
But Hassan’s face when she returned to the house was ablaze with joy. “I’m so proud of you Em,” he declared. That made it all worthwhile. The veils were staying.
Emma’s early veiled days were difficult. She disliked wearing them and was constantly tempted to remove them. Furthermore, they did not go down well at college. Her friends all thought that she’d gone crazy and deserted her in droves. Her best friend Stacey told her that it was wrong that Hassan forced her to wear stuff like that and didn’t believe her when she told her that she wore the veils of her own free choice. “Come out of it, Em,” she said, “you’re not some religious maniac, you’re a Potteries lass. Take ‘em off and tell him where to go with all that bullshit about controlling women and stuff.” Naturally, Emma didn’t take her advice and so she lost her best friend too.
The worst moment came some two months later though.
Emma was on Stoke on Trent railway station with Jamila and Aisha when a man, a stranger, came up to them and started shouting. “You should all fuck off home with your fundamentalist bullshit!” he screamed. “I was in that tube station when them bombs went off and I saw those people die. You lot are fucking sick. Live like animals over there but not here!” Then he looked closely and saw Emma’s blue eyes and the pale skin of her hands. “You’re not one them are you?” he asked.
“No, I was born here and I’m white!” she replied defiantly.
“Well then you’re the worst of the lot!” he retorted. “Fucking sick they are and yet you support ‘em! You make me sick, you really do!”
Emma couldn’t get over it. She was now hated by her own kind. She returned home in tears and cried for hours and hours. When Hassan came home from the mosque, (where he was spending most of his time now that his college course had finished), he comforted her and then said. “Well, never mind dear, I have a solution.”
He returned ten minutes later with a package. She opened it and found a pair of black gloves and a piece of cloth. The piece of cloth was a new faceveil. Hassan put it on. It was thick and there was no slit for the eyes. Her vision was reduced to a dull grey blur. Then she put on the gloves. “You will wear these from now on,” said Hassan. “If people can’t see your eyes and skin then they won’t know that you’re white. They’ll just assume that you are Arab like Jamila and Aisha.” Emma didn’t want to wear them, but there was a distressing ring of finality in his voice.
Wearing the full faceveil and gloves made life infinitely more difficult for Emma. Her vision was now so reduced that she could see virtually nothing in poor light. Consequently, she now never ventured out in the evenings. Furthermore, the gloves made handling things like money and keys tricky. It got better with practice, but nonetheless, it was hard. The only consolation was that Jamila and Aisha now wore the same. She was glad to take it off whenever she reached home.
That freedom however, soon became endangered. Several months after finishing college, Hassan announced that he no longer wanted to be a social worker, but instead had decided to train to become an Imam. After this, things got worse for Emma. Her husband grew a most unbecoming beard and started looking at her judgmentally when they were at home together. “Why do you insist on wearing those Western clothes in the house?” he asked. “Is it that you are ashamed of your Islamic garb?”
She told him that it was not that, but he didn’t listen. She defied him for a while but she could not cope with his moodiness and the chastising looks and comments from her mother and sisters-in-law. Eventually, she gave in and wore the veil in the house also. Outside of her bedroom, her world now became a dull grey haze.
Life outside the house was no easier either. Despite now being fully-covered, she still attracted derogatory and racist comments and one day a man – whom Emma could have sworn was a mate of Hassan’s although through her thick veil she couldn’t be sure – throw a bottle at her and told her to ‘Fuck off to Pakistan!’ That night they had a big family conference and Hassan announced that since Emma was now pregnant and thus delicate, it was perhaps unwise to let her wander the streets alone with crazy racists about. Thus, from that day on, she could not leave the house without a male escort.
And so it was that Emma started spending all her days inside. She had finished college now so that wasn’t a problem, and as she was pregnant, it was decreed that applying for a teaching position would not be wise, so instead she became a housewife, only leaving their small terrace in the evenings with her husband at her side. Although she was living in her home town, at times she felt a million miles away.
Eight months later she gave birth to a healthy baby girl. They called her Noor after her grandmother.
Once she had recovered from her pregnancy, Emma breached the subject of going to work to Hassan. He was now the Imam in the new mosque and very busy but he said he’d think about it. Then, a week later, he came home one evening and told her that they would be going out that night as a famous preacher was coming to talk at the mosque and it would be of interest to her and her sisters-in-law as the subject was ‘Women in Islam’. Emma, glad of a trip out and a night off looking after Noor, put on her going-out clothes, (for several months ago Hassan had asked her to wear an extra veil whenever outside as her inside one was somewhat transparent). Almost blinded by her outdoor veil, she followed the outline of Hassan’s figure and they walked to the mosque.
What she heard that night, she could not believe. The preacher, a fundamentalist from Pakistan, firmly believed that all women should live in purdah; veiled and separate from men. Their place was to stay at home and that was that. He compared the piety of Islamic women to the infidel whores all around. “However,” he said, “we should go further. Our voices too are part of our awrah, our allure. Therefore, is it not right that they should be ‘veiled’ also? Many pious women do try and keep silent when around strange men, but sadly it is not always possible, for example, if one is startled. However good women of Stoke on Trent, fear not! I have the solution here, a small black rubber gag that is extremely popular in Pakistan amongst those close to Allah. Wearing this at all times will remind you of the injunction to keep silent. I have a stock of these with me now for those who are interested and would be happy to sell them for two pounds each, the profits going to Islamic Relief.”
At the end, Hassan, being the host, got up and congratulated the preacher on his talk. “And to show you all a good example,” he then announced, “my wife has agreed to wear one of these gags at all times and so I shall buy the first. Here is five pounds sir, and keep the change as the cause is a holy one…”
Emma looks at herself again in the mirror and sighs. That was nine years ago. Ever since then she has been gagged, veiled and housebound. Resigned to her fate, she slips the gag into her mouth and ties it behind her head. Then she combs back her beautiful blonde hair and affixes her headscarf. Finally, she lets the thick black veil fall over her face and she contemplates the black wall of black material before her. This is the bed that she has made and she has no fears about lying in it. But then the task of the day forces itself into her mind again. Today is the day when Noor will be made to wear her gag, gloves and veil for the first time. After today, she will be living in purdah too. ‘Oh God,’ she asks to no one in particular. ‘You have punished me, but why must you punish her who is innocent also?’
There is no answer so she gets up to prepare the Imam’s daughter.