At her grade school graduation in June, as we walked up the steps together, my daughter Olivia stopped and asked me a question: “Be honest, Mommy; is being a grown-up fun?” All her hope, excitement, and worry were contained in that single question. She gripped my hand tightly, and I squeezed it back.
At dinner, the talk turned to high school and college. Olivia and Sophia couldn’t imagine not living with us. “Oh, that will change,” I said. “You’ll want to leave, but it won’t be because you love us any less.”
Tell them about Fatima, said Steve.
Fatima was the bright, strong-willed young woman I’d gotten to know a few weeks earlier at a writing conference. Her story had made me shiver and push away thoughts of the skirmishes that awaited me and my girls.
She’d lived in Florida, the middle child of five brothers and sisters in a family shaped by religion. In Fatima’s orthodox Muslim world, they prayed five times a day. And women stayed at home until they married.
“When I see the American flag, I really understand what freedom is.”
But Fatima could not be contained. “Even as a child, I’d always questioned why men and women had to be separated, why women had to wear a head scarf,” she’d told me.
At 15, she was caught talking to a boy. Her mother told her it was time to wear the hijab, a head covering worn in public by some Muslim women. Fatima obliged when she was with her family, but she’d take off the hijab at school. Living at home, she kept up this secret double existence through college, law school, and her first job. She was 25 when she finally came to an inflection point: “I could live the life they decided for me, or I could live the life that I wanted to live.”
She told her parents she was taking off the hijab permanently. Bitter arguments ensued.
She decided it was time.
Every night, she’d fill a backpack. Night one, she stuffed it with socks, then delivered the bag to a girlfriend who’d agreed to store her things. The next night, she filled it with underwear. She researched, found, and applied for an apartment closer to her job. “The lease was like a scroll laid out before me,” said Fatima. “My entire life was about to change.
“That night, I focused on my father’s face for what might be the last time. I said it simply: ‘Mom, Dad, I signed a lease, and I’m moving.’” Silence. Then her father said he didn’t want to see her again.
She’d been quiet telling this part. “The first step toward freedom is the hardest,” she said.
Today Fatima is 28 and a reporter for the Cincinnati Enquirer. Independence, and the courage it takes to win it, suits her. “I love taking care of myself,” she said. “When I see the American flag, I really understand what freedom is.”
She is still close with all her siblings and her mother, who serves as a bridge between father and daughter. There have been opaque overtures in recent months. Cards have been sent. “My father and I are both extremely stubborn. But as I look at having a family of my own, I will want him to be part of my life.”
Oh good, I’d said. You are finding your way back to each other.
“I think so,” she’d said. “We’ll know when we’re ready.”