Your Voice, My Strength

By Raashida Khan

 

Amina painstakingly applied the make-up to shield the bruise on her left cheek. Fortunately, there was no cut and not much swelling. It still hurt like hell though. Luqmaan never left tell-tale marks. That left him only her whole body since she was covered head to foot. All anyone saw of her was her face. She herself, looked away from the mirror when showering or dressing. While applying salve or balms, the soft, creased lids almost closed over the eyes that were nowadays glassy. There was not an inch of her fragile frame, her husband of fourteen years, had left unmarked over the last nine.

Nine is my lucky number. Maybe it will stop before ten. At her very core though, she felt it would stop only with her death. She wrapped her head scarf carefully, ensuring all loose tendrils were tucked in and no make-up smudged off. Amina’s narrow feet, in flat pumps, could not be seen and barely made a sound. The unadorned, frayed hem of her abaya was long enough to sweep the ground, so it looked like she floated to the kitchen. She read a Yaaseen as she unpacked the washing machine, defrosted meat, and mindlessly passed the morning with her daily routine – her endless chores.

As she sorted pretty pink socks, her heart contracted with love for her children. Luqmaan, on the other hand, never showed any interest because he did not like girls. The only thing he despised more was Amina’s inability to produce a son. His cruelty had turned to abuse after Bilquis, their second daughter, was born. The beatings had stopped when she fell pregnant a third time, but when this pregnancy produced another girl, they started up immediately, intensifying in ferocity and frequency. The litany of complaints against Amina grew. Zaynub, her youngest, a gentle soul with an ever-ready smile, had not started speaking. She was almost five now, so even the gurgling and childish grunts had stopped. The child was silent. When you marry an uneducated girl, this is what happens. Luqmaan’s words echoed in Amina’s ears. You get idiot children.

Zaynub was entertaining herself. Amina chatted to her nonstop. It was a two-way conversation; Amina asking and answering questions for both of them, changing her lilt as she spoke for her daughter.

‘Come, baby. Let’s go fetch Fathima and Billie. But, Mom, I’m still playing. Okay, Zaynie. Finish up. We’ll leave in five minutes.’ Zaynub heard but show any indication that she understood. Amina reached for her hand. ‘How about a snack?’ She pointed towards the kitchen counter where she had laid out sliced apples in a plastic plate, cookies in a little bowl, and nuts in another. She knew the girl would go for the nuts, but the literature encouraged giving the child choices in the hope that this would encourage her to talk.

The conclusions of the three assessments concurred. ‘There is no physiological reason for Zaynub not to speak. Her hearing is excellent too.’ Speech and play therapies were recommended, but Luqmaan had refused. What would people say? Any attempts at persuading him otherwise led to confrontations, another reason to lash out his frustrations on her. Amina looked heavenward, praying for a change of Luqmaan’s heart. ‘I’m not wasting money on white people’s nonsense,’ was his feeble excuse, and then he just laid down the law – NO THERAPY!

Last night, Amina should have left it at that, but she was so vested in trying to convince him she missed the tell-tale sign of the hand closing into a fist. ‘Shut up!’ he shouted and smacked his phone into her mouth. She tasted iron and felt dizzy. He slapped her again and aggressively pushed her onto the bed. He straddled her as his lips bared menacing teeth. ‘You want more?’ His right arm was raised to strike again. Amina shook her head and kept silent. ‘Just shut up about this shit, if you know what’s good for you.’ Another stinging blow ended the conversation and, gratefully, the beating too.

Now that Luqmaan had refused again, she had no choice but to take Zaynub to therapy in secret. It would be difficult, but she would make a plan. Over the years, she had tried everything to break into her daughter’s cocooned world and draw her out, to help her become a butterfly. No. Not a butterfly. A bird. A singing nightingale. Reading and other forms of stimulation that she could do herself were exhausted. Every supplication to Allah: khatams and duas, mannats, blowing furtively recited prayers on water for Zaynub to drink, reading a verse from the Quraan as she gently placed her hand on Zaynub’s throat and Zaynub’s hand on hers, taaweezs from Maulanas, and an endless array of dietary changes recommended by the hakeem. She never became despondent or dejected, as she persevered, for He would grant her prayers. Zaynub would talk. Of that, Amina was convinced. She was accepting of His will and plan, and practised patient, nurturing love with Zaynub as she waited for His miracle.

At one-thirty, she left to fetch her older girls from school. The heat in the car was stifling. She pulled off her headscarf and revelled in the feeling of the cool air-conditioned breeze against her neck.

‘Hey, Zaynub? What if your father were to see me now? Oh, mom, he would be so mad.’ Her voice lilted when she spoke for the silent child. Zaynub’s attention was focused on the school entrance. ‘You want to join your sisters, huh, baby? Come to school like a big girl? Yes. Oh, Mom, can I? Please? When? Soon, baby. Next year, you can start grade R.’

Amina played with the child’s soft, brown locks. ‘You just have to start talking for yourself. But then you will be all alone at home, Mom. How can I leave you? Shnookums, you have to start school next year. Don’t worry about me. When you’re back every day, you can tell me all about it.’

Zaynub’s expression changed, and she smiled broadly, showing her pearly teeth as she bounced up and down in her booster seat. Sure enough, her sisters were racing to the car. Each hugged Zaynub and showered her with kisses. The girls then softly hugged their mother, having learnt from a young age not to squeeze too hard, never knowing where a fresh bruise or fractured bone lay behind the layers of dark fabric.

At home, the older girls disappeared into their bedrooms while Amina readied lunch. She kept up her running commentary with Zaynub. ‘Can’t wait for your girls to be big enough to help me. Then I won’t have to be in the kitchen all day. You love it, Mom. Admit it. You love cooking and baking. Haha! You’re right, Shnookums. Know me too well. Clever girl!’

After dropping the older girls at madressah, Amina took Zaynub for the first session of therapy. Please, Allah. Please, don’t let it be too late for Zaynub.

Lisa, the therapist, was professional and knowledgeable. She, in turn, was impressed with Amina’s research and detailed record of Zaynub’s history. She spoke kindly. ‘Okay. I’ll show you where you can observe us without being seen or heard.’

Amina hugged Zaynub. ‘Mom will be right outside, Shnookums. Lisa and you are going to have a great time.’

For the next fifty minutes, Amina watched and waited and prayed. She prayed for a word, a sound. But there was nothing. Zaynub ignored Lisa, as though she did not exist. When it ended, Lisa was brief. ‘It’s the first session. It’s too early to tell. Let’s not rush things or jump to any conclusions.’

‘Anything? I mean, is there anything I should be doing for her or with her?’

‘I think you’re doing everything right. Be patient.’

Amina paid and glanced at her watch. There was just time enough to fetch the girls from madressah, cook, and get the girls bathed and started with homework before Luqmaan came home. As she turned into the yard, however, her heart skipped a beat. His car was in the driveway. She wondered how long he had been home. Usually, she would have only left thirty minutes earlier to be on time for collection, but not today.

‘Dad is home.’ Her usual lilting cadence was replaced by a high-pitched tone. The older girls rushed in, but Zaynub ran to her mother and clung to her legs, wanting to be picked up. ‘But you are too heavy for me now.’ Amina hoisted the child and balanced her on her hip anyway. Zaynub’s fair bare legs looked even whiter against Amina’s black abaya.

‘Assalamu-a-laikum,’ Amina greeted, as was her habit when she walked in, even if the house was empty, she called the greeting for the angels in the house. Why is Luqmaan home? Today of all days!

Luqmaan summoned her to their bedroom. ‘Where were you?’ The words were spat out, the voice guttural.

‘Madressah. I went early. I had to help Mualimah.’

‘Liar! You went to extension five.’

Amina’s mouth dropped open. How did he know? Her stomach tightened. She could hear her heart thudding in her chest. Zaynub clung tighter, laying her body flat against Amina’s as though she wanted their bodies to merge.

‘Bitch! Cheat on me and lie on top of it! Who is he?’ Luqmaan shouted and covered the distance between them ominously.

Amina instinctively put her arm up. ‘Let me explain.’

‘Fucking explain? Lie, you mean.’

Amina begged, ‘Wait. Please, Luqmaan. Let me take Zaynub downst—’

Luqmaan ignored Amina’s plea and grabbed her arm throwing her onto the bed. ‘I’ll show you, bitch,’ he growled.

 

Zaynub squirmed out from under her mother and put her body between her parents. ‘Stop!’ Zaynub commanded. The word, her very first, had the impact of stilling everything in the room –  Luqmaan’s hands that wound tightly into fists fell to his sides, the vitriolic threats quietened, and he stood rooted to the spot.

Amina sat bolt upright and stared at Zaynub. Did she really speak? Did I hear Zaynub’s voice? The guidance she had been given about her reaction when Zaynub did speak flew out the window, together with her fear. She placed her hands on Zaynub’s shoulders and turned her around so their faces were centimetres apart. ‘Zaynub?’

Zaynub looked at her father and spoke again. ‘Stop. Dad. Don’t hit my Mom.’ The voice that had never been used before rang clear and strong.

Luqmaan stared and then his face creased into a scowl, making him appear monstrous. ‘You witch! Who the hell are you to tell me what to do? Learn all this from your stupid, uneducated mother. I’ll kill you!’ He lunged towards the child.

Amina stood up tall and pushed him away with all her might. ‘No! Don’t you touch her!’ Nothing and no one would harm her child. Luqmaan fell against the floor with a heavy thud, and his head connected with the dressing table with a loud crack.

He screamed and touched the side of his head, howling in pain and fear when he saw blood. ‘Blood! Blood?’ His voice was soft and teary.

‘Oh, please. Stop with the theatrics. It’s a small cut. You’ll be fine. It’s nothing compared to what you’ve put me through.’ Amina felt empowered. First by Zaynub’s words, and then by seeing Luqmaan’s reaction to her show of strength. ‘Do not ever raise your hand or voice to me or my children again. Do you understand?’ Hand-in-hand, the diminutive mother and daughter towered over Luqmaan. Luqmaan cowered, staring mutely. He looked shocked, terrified. He nodded once then looked away.

Zaynub and Amina strode out of the bedroom, united in their power and their protection of each other. For years, Amina was Zaynub’s voice. Today, Zaynub repaid her ten-fold when she spoke. Spoke for herself and for her mother.

‘My voice. Your voice. Our voice. One voice.’ Amina sang the words as they bounded away. We will never be silenced again.

 

Raashida Khan is a content creator, author, poet, wife, mother and friend – a unicorn that does exist. As a caring, compassionate and empathetic person who loves observing people and life, she is a storyteller of note. She would like to remembered as ‘never boring.’

Read her writings and musings at www.raashisreflections.com

She was born in Durban (her favourite city), South Africa where she lived for twenty-seven years. She studied at the University of KZN qualifying with a BA Hons (Economic History).

Her story Your Voice, My Strength was selected as the winning story for the 2017 South African Muslim Women’s Short Story Competition.

 

 

Glossary

 

abaya – loose, flowing full length dress worn as a sign of modesty. Usually black in colour

Yaaseen – significant verse from the Quraan. Considered the ‘heart’ of the Quraan

madressah – Islamic school attended by children to learn about and how to practise the religion

khatam – literally, “to complete/completion”. To read the entire Quraan

dua – prayer

mannat – a type of vow to do something specific (such as give to charity) if a prayer is answered

taaweez – an amulet/talisman

Maulana – a learned scholar/holy man

hakeem – a homeopath who treats and prescribes according to the Quraan

Mualimah – female madressah teacher

Assalamu-a-laikum – Literally, ‘Peace be upon you’. Muslim greeting

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