It was a Sunday, and the masjid was full of children. I stood with my back to the prayer room. My legs stout and round, hair tied back into a scarf, as I watched a girl be led down the cold tile hallway into the woman’s bathroom. This was the first walk of shame I ever witnessed. M’s long legs stepped steadily, Black feet sure and unafraid. She wore bright pink leggings, no blush to their hue. Her face was a combination of shock and sudden understanding as if she were thinking “Oh, so that’s why.” It was the beginning of her own realizations too, the day she was jolted out of the safe, padded fog of childhood, and brought into the blinding light of scrutiny, where no aspect of one’s perceived wrongness can go unnoticed. This is the part of childhood I miss most tenderly. The ability to love me so fully that the opinions and perceptions of others fly over my head, and cease to exist.
When M returned, she was wearing a long, shapeless item, which I knew from a group of girls to be called an abaya. Sometimes when girls came to the mosque in T-shirts or clothes considered too form-fitting, they were handed one. Then their child bodies were obscured as if God was offended by them, or grown men had to be discouraged from touching them. The thin fabric was tugged over the girl’s face, and she sometimes looked like she wanted to cry. After witnessing that a few times, I began to obsess over whether one of my dreads stuck out of my scarf, or my backside was too pronounced under my skirt, and I began to notice the supposed shortcomings of other girls everywhere. I made mental notes of when a woman’s dress clung a bit too snuggly to a hip, and sure enough, a rumor would pop up about them eventually. The fact that M was either allowed to or insisted upon dressing in a way that was considered inappropriate by most people at Sunday school fascinated me. I couldn’t fathom having that amount of what I considered gall, but I respected her for having it. It’s what fueled the growing crush I had on her. By the end of that year, she was one of the only reasons I could stand going to Sunday school.
I got my period when I was ten. I remember the day and exactly how it happened. I went to the bathroom and was confronted with a bright coral mess against a pure white ball of tissue. A wave of panic rolled through my body as my small, chubby thighs sank into the porcelain seat; now, when I look down at my naked legs I’m immediately transported to that moment.
“Mom,” I said. “I have to go to the hospital.” My face quivered, hot and pink, and she attempted to hide a chuckle under her breath. Indignation found my deep brown eyes, and my heart jumped into my throat like a hefty frog before I forced it back down. She stood in a comfortable stance and her face was lit with an exuberance so out of character it startled me.
“I’ve been waiting for this day.” She said. My eyebrows knit together as she explained and I wiped the tears from my face and bit my cheek.
“You aren’t dying,” she added for good measure.
Soon after that incident, my parents broke the news that I’d start covering my hair. For years, they had hinted at this, without ever straight out saying when it would happen. At first, they policed me covertly. Slowly weaning me off of slightly cropped pants and short-sleeved shirts. At times I was afraid to wear three-quarter-length sleeves because I would be stared down or berated until I changed on my own. I tried to ignore the disapproval and work around it, but in the end, I couldn’t win. The jeans were too tight, or the shirt didn’t cover my butt, or the neckline was too low. I would trudge up and down the stairs, exhausted and teary-eyed. I stood in front of my wall-length mirror in my pastel pink room and picked my appearance apart.
In the few weeks after I “became a woman,” I read the Quran almost cover to cover and consumed countless articles and YouTube Videos about God’s opinion on modesty. I found that there are few verses in the Quran that reference a woman’s dress. There is no Islamic bullet point on what body parts women and girls must cover, almost as if (gasp) God wanted to give us autonomy. As with most things concerning most religions, restrictions and rules are constructed by men, not ordained by God. After realizing this, I wrestled my frustrations into words and wrote an angry speech in a notebook. I summoned enough nerve to approach my parents and told them that God didn’t care whether or not I wore a scarf, and that, if anything, he was mad at them for forcing me to. I told them how ridiculous it was to hide menstruation from me, and then expect me to be happily complicit in traditions surrounding it. As I made my points, their bodies laid still, their faces were surprised but emotionless besides that. When I was done, I caught my breath and stood in front of them, sure I’d made it worse, but my determination swayed them, and the coverage mandate was pushed back 3 years.
One day, I sat with a group of kids in the little room at the back of the masjid where we were allowed to hang out. There were no chairs left, so a latecomer plopped herself on my lap. I measured my breathing; one, two, three. She was so warm, sitting there unbeknownst to my panic. I wasn’t sure what to do with my hands and wondered if she could feel my chest pounding against her back like a drum banging out some ancient rhythm. Glancing around to make sure none of the other kids were looking, I pretended to lean in to get a better look at Elsa skipping across the screen, and gently brushed my lips against her cheek. She didn’t seem to notice. Nothing happened. For a moment I stood so still, afraid God would drop me dead and send me straight to hell. But still…nothing. Feeling relieved and significantly lighter, my body relaxed. Eventually, she got off my lap and left, where to I had no idea. About an hour later, my mother came to get me. She called my name into that little black room and I emerged into the light, my secret safety tucked within it. Then, I saw the other girl standing with her mother, on the other side of the walkway.
“You know you can’t kiss girls, right?” My mom asked, turning me to face her. Her voice was soft like she was correcting a much younger child after making a silly mistake, but behind the slightly upward turn of her lips, were eyes that didn’t match her smile. I could read through her tone and the way she tried to pretend nothing was wrong. “It’s ok if it was on the cheek, but girls don’t kiss other girls. OK?” She nodded her head quickly as if she was trying to convince me I agreed. I looked over at lap girl from the corner of my eye, my peripheral vision blurred as my gaze fell beneath my prescription glasses. She saw me, wrung her hands and looked away, headscarf pulled back a bit to reveal the starts a few crisp cornrows. Her mother might have pulled a lip into her mouth, or given a small, tight smile that only managed to make her appear less content, I don’t remember. In a way, I trusted her daughter with an encrypted truth I hadn’t yet admit to myself. The heaviness of that moment and what it could mean to our community, to our parents and friends, even if it was one-sided, was strong enough unsaid to convince her that resolving her name was more important than helping me hide my queerness. And so she did. And who could blame her for that?
A lot of Muslim children are taught that an angel sits on each shoulder. The one on your right records every good deed, the one on the left records every bad deed. When we are young and bright, made of nothing but light, we can run free. Our angels are our enlightened bodyguards, twisting and turning through the meaninglessness and everythingness of life by our sides. The same awesome entities that babies coo lovingly at while pointing at some unseen thing. But then, at seven years old, our angels start seeing us differently, and the world too. Suddenly, we’re no longer light-beings, but small fires waiting to happen, always succumbing to a new ungodly failure. They begin recording everything we do. When we die, the ratio is counted, and our post-life abode is determined. Sometimes angels linger, holding on to dregs of childhood; mine left for good at 10. M, lap girl, and my own desires forced me to see things had changed and no matter how fervently I believed myself to be good or how intelligently I argued my case, it wasn’t enough to legitimize my identity in the eyes of the world. To make my angels proud, I stayed up at night grueling over which “bad” parts of myself I had to let go of in order to keep the respect of my peers and elders, the love of my parents, and entrance into heaven.
At fourteen, years after I left that masjid, I read the Color Purple and fell in love with Shug Avery. Her superhuman self-assuredness reminded me of M, and Celie and her’s friendship reminded me of what I hoped ours would have become. Years had passed since I’d seen her. I knew that women could love each other in ways some people despised more than hatred. The people in my childhood treated queerness like a rare disease, that didn’t deserve acknowledgment unless it got too close, or too confident. When it did, the attention always stung, so I tucked it away and taught it to be scared. My experience at that masjid was never outwardly malicious, but it did convince me I’d be better off hiding my bisexuality than living as I truly was.
Pink is a strange color. Little girls are taught to love it, so tomboys pretend to hate it, and grown women are either belittled or fetishized for enjoying it, so some grow to embrace and others to reject it. Pink screams when people try to hide. It is the color of M’s leggings, my old bedroom walls, my period blood, my blushing cheeks, and every elephant in every room. No color has more baggage or connotations. Pink is the color of God, who is invisible yet impossible to miss, defined and compressed by the greyscale minds of men; just like little girls. In the moments when I judge myself, I think of M. M, who was villainized because she was a little girl who sometimes smacked her teeth, sung popular songs heard on the radio, and wore hot pink leggings. A little girl who refused to act like shrinking herself to appease people was normal. In M’s story, I found my own. Sometimes I still police myself, I convince myself I’m wrong, but then I say to myself what Shug Avery said to Celie when she asked if God thought their love was dirty; “naw, God made it. Listen, God love everything,” and I chuck those thoughts into the distance like they’re physical things. I used to imagine myself as Celie, and M as Shug Avery, but now I’m Shug in my mind, reassuring some other poor blush pink girl, glowing as fuchsia as God itself.