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Original Essays

Women Don't Run

by Sheba Karim
  1. Skunk Girl "Narrator Nina has a wry, witty take on her life circumstances, yet her humor is subtly delivered, deftly intermixed with the novel's undercurrent of seriousness....[R]eaders will readily identify with her struggle, and they'll find her an endearing and admirable literary companion." Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books

    "Karim's first novel provides a rare exploration of Muslim culture and will be a welcome addition to teen collections." Booklist

When a Muslim makes a religious pilgrimage to Mecca during a time other than the month of Hajj, this pilgrimage is called Umrah. When I was 12, my family stopped over in Saudi Arabia on our way to Pakistan to perform Umrah. It was the winter holidays, and other Muslim families from throughout the world had had a similar idea; the mass of people circumambulating the Kaa'ba, Islam's holiest shrine, was so thick that there was no chance of even getting within striking distance of the sacred building, much less kissing its fabled black stone. But we didn't mind. We were in the most sacred city on earth, the days were pleasantly warm, the nights refreshingly cool, and, after we completed Umrah, we would be absolved of all of our sins.

One of the rituals conducted during Umrah is related to Prophet Ibrahim, or Abraham. Shortly after Ibrahim's concubine, Hajar, gave birth to Ismail, Allah ordered Ibrahim to abandon Hajar and Ismail in the middle of a desert. After finding themselves alone in a barren valley with neither food nor water, Hajar set Ismail on the ground and climbed one of the hills, hoping to catch sight of a spring or oasis. Unsuccessful, she ran back across the valley and climbed the hill opposite. As Ismail wailed with hunger, Hajar continued to run from one hill to the other. She did this a total of seven times, crying out to Allah to please help them as she went. Exhausted, Hajar returned to Ismail, only to discover that her pleas to Allah had not gone unanswered, for water had began gushing through the sand beneath Ismail's feet. This spring is now called the ZamZam well, and its water is considered holy.

To commemorate Hajar and Ismail's plight and the subsequent miracle that saved them, one of the rituals of Umrah involves traveling back and forth seven times between these very same two hills, just as Hajar did, except now the entire area is enclosed, paved with marble, and air-conditioned. Along the route are green markers designating the sections where running is permissible. Seeing this marker, I began to jog. I had been running for less than a minute when a man signaled for me to stop. He was the epitome of a scary mullah, the bottom of his face framed by the dark arc of his beard, the top of his face anchored by small, angry eyes, one long, accusatory index finger pointed directly at me.

"Stop running," he admonished. "You must walk. Women do not run."

I was indignant. How could he tell me that women didn't run when the very reason we were here was because a woman once ran between these two hills? How dare he try to dictate my movement? In the short silence that followed, I considered two possible responses. One, chastise this man for his ignorance and for his attempt to usurp my right to properly honor the experience of a woman. Two, roll my eyes at him and continue running. Which one did I choose? Neither.

"Okay," I said, and began to walk.

Talk to any woman raised in a Muslim family, and she will likely have a similar story to tell. The place and role of women in Islam is a topic that has long been the subject of much public debate, to which there are many opinions but little consensus. Some say that it is not Islam, but man, who has limited women's freedom by distorting the religion to suit his own agenda. Others call for a feminist reinterpretation of the Quran, or to employ the practice of ijtihad, independent reasoning, to make Islam more compatible with our changing modern times, while still others argue that the only acceptable solution is to abandon Islam altogether.

In writing Skunk Girl, I wanted to shed light on this debate; not the very contentious, public one that goes on in mosques and in the media, but a private one, one that takes place in the hearts and minds of women of the second generation as we define our identity, draw our borders of belonging, write our own moral codes.

Growing up as a Pakistani-Muslim-American girl, my hyphens often seemed more like contradictions. Study hard so you can have a successful career and make a lot of money, but remember that, if you do not marry and have children, your life will be forever unfulfilled. You do not have to cover your head, but do not ever show your legs. Go to a school that is 50 percent boys, but do not talk to them beyond what is necessary. Be friendly with white people, but do not emulate their many immoral behaviors. Remember that even when we are not watching you, Allah is. And then, as if Muslim girls of South Asian descent don't already have enough to deal with, puberty brings a plague of body hair upon us, and suddenly everything becomes that much worse.

There is a lot of humor in Skunk Girl, but I made sure there was a lot of raw honesty as well. I didn't want to gloss over how truly difficult it is to be caught between two different cultures. Though the novel is set in the early '90s, when many Americans knew little about Islam, I imagine it is just as hard, if not harder, to grow up in a time when many Americans equate Islam with terrorism, for not only do you have to create your own conception of self, you also have to refute the misconceptions of others. Adulthood is no solution, as most of us spend our entire lives trying to figure out who we are and how we fit in. Though the narrator, Nina, becomes more confident and accepting of herself by the end of the book, it is clear that she will continue to grapple with the enduring ability of hyphens to couple pride with shame, awareness with confusion, just as they couple one ethnicity to the next. As Nina's sister tells Nina in the book, "You very well may be wrestling with these questions of faith and morality and guilt for the rest of your life."

My book does not shy away from the fact that the reconciliations we make between the culture we inherit and the one we live in, the dictates of our religion and how we choose to behave, can be uneasy, shifting, precarious. But our contradictions are a part of us, just like our skin or our hair, and the struggle for identity is just that, a struggle. So we should always hold on to our laughter and our hope, and we should not be discouraged if things don't seem to make sense, if we say one thing and do another, disregard one tenet but adhere to the next, if sometimes, when we want to run, we walk instead. The important thing is to keep on moving.

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Sheba Karim was born and raised in the Catskills. She received an M.F.A. in fiction from the Iowa Writers' Workshop and presently lives in New York City. This is her first book. spacer

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