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'Forgive yourself the way Allah forgives you': Growing up Muslim with abuse, depression and trauma Open in fullscreen

Diana Alghoul

'Forgive yourself the way Allah forgives you': Growing up Muslim with abuse, depression and trauma

Mental health is commonly looked over in Arab and Muslim communities [Getty]

Date of publication: 10 October, 2018

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Just because mental health isn't widely discussed in Arab and Muslim communities, it doesn't mean it's not there. The New Arab interviews Maysoon, who is on her recovery journey.
Mental health awareness is spreading rapidly across the globe, with people of all cultures, backgrounds and ages digging into themselves to unpack traumas and rid themselves of debilitating thought patterns. 

What was not long ago seen as a shameful social taboo is something that is becoming more widely discussed and taken more seriously as people find it less reprehensible to want to improve their lives.

Whether people use anonymous blogs, or choose to discuss it on their own social media platforms, among their loved ones or on a global platform; mental health is a topic that is finally on the radar.

While it may seem like a straightforward process of identifying thought patterns, finding their root and letting go by creating new thoughts, the journey itself is an uphill battle in itself.

It forces the patient to face their inner-most demons and come to terms with the fact that their mind is one of their worst enemies. Those battling become even more observant of their struggle and the way their thoughts cripple their every action.

Read also: 'The remedy of a soul': Mental health worker Hadeel Naser helps Syrian refugees heal

For Maysoon*, a Londoner of Arab origin in her mid-20s, her depression and spiritual trauma are two things that have haunted her everyday life for years.

"I think it's impossible to divorce my mental health issues from my spiritual experience growing up," Maysoon tells The New Arab.

"I have depression and I've been subjected to non-intentional emotional and spiritual abuse. As an Arab and Muslim woman, my parents and the society around me installed this fear within me at a very young age, making me feel as though I am always being watched and God is out there just waiting for me to make a mistake so I can burn for eternity."

As an Arab and Muslim woman, my parents and the society around me installed this fear within me at a very young age, making me feel as though I am always being watched and God is out there just waiting for me to make a mistake so I can burn for eternity

The way she was taught to fear God, rather than to establish her own relationship with Him led her to numerous forms of rebellion as she grew up, a strained relationship with her parents and a double identity. For a significant portion of her life, Maysoon felt alone, trapped in her hybrid British-Arab identity and disturbed by the toxic norms she grew up with.

"I had many 'eureka' moments throughout my life," she said. "At one point when I was a teenager, I went to an Islamic school for a few years and I was taught a lot of stuff that wasn't really Islamic. One example that still gets to me is that a woman cannot enter a Mosque on her period.

"I remember searching this up for myself and found it to be untrue. I started to realise that what my parents and teachers were telling me had little to do with Islam and more to do with shame culture. I became a feminist through studying Islam for myself and began to use the Quran as a mechanism to argue back with my parents when they refused to allow me to do something."

As time went on, so did her struggle with spiritual acceptance. Maysoon's depression continued to grow, yet she allowed it to shadow her thoughts in the background.

By the time she went to university, her mental health worsened as she had still not begun to address the root cause of it.

She began online dating with a warped view of what love is supposed to look like, after growing up fearing authority in the form of affection and fell into toxic relationships.

"As someone who is devout Muslim and wears a hijab, I found it difficult to label myself, which perpetuated my identity crisis and made me feel very alone," Maysoon explains.

"Because I wear a hijab, people in the community tend to associate me with all things pure. If I opened up about my struggles with my toxic relationships, non-hijabi Muslims would have judged me and used me as an example of hijab not being synonymous with piety and fellow hijabis would have judged me for not knowing better because I cover my head."

I started to realise that what my parents and teachers were telling me had little to do with Islam and more to do with shame culture

Double standards in the realm of sexuality in her conservative background was also something that clouded over Maysoon's identity. Despite the fact that abstinence before marriage is something emphasised for both men and women in Islam, society places more pressure and shame on women to adhere than men.

"Discussing sexuality in the community is still something we shy away from. All we're taught is that as women we are supposed to not have desires until we're married. Yet our biology contradicts this. When you're unable to deal with your sexuality in a healthy way and understand how to manage it before you're married the way Islam says you're supposed to, you're left feeling even more confused and feeling like your own body is leading you to hell."

Generational trauma

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Maysoon contributes a large amount of her mental health problems to her upbringing – though she remains adamant that her parents did not intend to scar her.

"To put it simply, my grandparents suffered under the hands of colonialism which put a strain on their mental health. During colonialism and even post-independence, mental health was not even something to acknowledge let alone to consider. My grandparents didn't sit and try to unpack the many ways living under colonial rule affected them growing up. It was all about survival."

This led to her grandparents transferring the trauma onto her own parents, according to Maysoon. Growing up with parents focusing directly on survival resulted in an upbringing filled with physical, mental, emotional and spiritual abuse. Because this form of raising children was a norm, her parents grew up believing that it's normal for children to fear authority in order to be well behaved.

"My parents raised me the way they did because they thought this is love. I am lucky in the sense that I grew up with parents who love each other and act like high-school sweethearts even after all of these years. Some people have to endure abusive parenting and watch their parents live in a toxic marriage at the same time."

Growing up in a diaspora adds even more pressure according to Maysoon.

"Obviously they were scared. They wanted my siblings and me to keep our religion, language and culture and had no idea how to do it outside. There was no manual for them. While it's not an excuse, they only did what they thought was right."

Obviously they were scared. They wanted my siblings and me to keep our religion, language and culture and had no idea how to do it outside. There was no manual for them

'Forgive yourself the way Allah forgives you'

After her graduation, Maysoon's life felt like it was still crumbling. She had left a toxic relationship with a man she was finding it very difficult to let go of, had to continue to put up with the shame culture that suffocated her and was just starting to admit to herself that she needs to focus on her mental health.

"The concept of mental health in Arab and Muslim communities is one that we don't really discuss. When we do, we're told to pray it out, or even worse are told we're possessed by a jinn and need an exorcism."

"For me, I embarked my recovery by forgiving myself. Allah says we're allowed a clean slate whenever we want. All we need to do is pray with sincere intention of repentance which is something purely between the person and their Lord. I allow myself to be human. I allow myself to make mistakes and I allow myself to read, learn and talk so I can spiritually and mentally recover," she added.

As for changes within Arab and Muslim societies, the process is longer and is one of people in this generation unpacking their own traumas so they don't continue the cycle of projection.

"Parents need to be safe spaces rather than disciplinarians, girls need to be close to their fathers and communication needs to be emphasised from childhood," Maysoon said.

"Taboos need to be broken so teenagers can understand their sexuality and manage it so they don't feel like their bodies are turning them into bad Muslims and so everyone who has been victim of sexual assault will be comfortable to speak up and receive the right treatment."

Above all, mental health is important in Arab and Muslim communities so everyone is in it together.

"We need to make sure people no longer embark on their recovery alone so they don't get overwhelmed by their journey. Only when there is collective guidance to the right resources and literature, can we really say we're progressing with mental health awareness in our communities."

*Editor's note: Maysoon's real name has been changed to protect her privacy.

Diana Alghoul is a British/Palestinian journalist at The New Arab and lifestyle blogger. 

Follow her on Twitter: @SuperKnafeh

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