For Love or Duty

by A Lady

Marriage has never been on the books for me. My parents thought it unnecessary, hindering, and dooming. They firmly believe that humanity is fast approaching qiyamah (Day of Resurrection), and the time where true believers will no longer exist on the face of this Earth. No one qualifies to be our partners, so neither I nor my siblings are to get married. This notion is especially critical in my case for the fact that I am a woman and, as such, far more susceptible to being led down a deviant path. After all, in Islam, men are tasked to lead and hell is supposedly populated by far more women than men. A belief stemmed from inauthentic, weak, but unfortunately popular hadiths

Generally, I accepted my parents’ rule, resigned to the plans that they have for me, which is to take on all the responsibilities of the home, finances, and care-taking. I would manage their household and buy them a house using my name. Of course, I would have no real authority, much like a secretary who has all the information and know-how on her fingertips but who works in service to a powerful though ignorant superior. This was the future I consciously worked towards, always trying to find balance between being able to earn enough for them in a field that I could at least enjoy. I never once fathomed that I would want anything else. Until I met my wonderful boyfriend, to whom I am now engaged.

He is my best friend and the love of my life, who is not only proud of my qualifications and achievements, but also encourages me to reach my potential and pursue my dreams. If he had not persuaded me, I would never have sent my writing out. I learned to step outside my comfort zone, see the life I have to live and make good of. So when he went down on one knee and proposed, I accepted, all stinky from moving day, dressed in this crummy T-shirt and sweatpants ensemble that I have been wearing for about a week.

However, getting married will be a tremendously difficult undertaking for me. Perhaps it will be even a bigger challenge than the two biggest challenge in my life: weaning off coffee (never) and quitting video games to become a more responsible adult (never, never).

See, he is Chinese and a non-Muslim. Even if he was Muslim, it would not have been any better. My family are Quranists, therefore religious minorities and some of the most marginalised (outright “outlawed”) within the Muslim community. For them, adherence to the hadith, or prophetic traditions, especially without critical and contextual inquiry is a no-go. For my parents, the limits of the human imagination need to be taken into account in the reading and interpretation of the Quran. The religious education I received differed greatly from my peers: namely, I have never once stepped foot in religious class (and frankly the idea of doing so is about as comfortable as a wedgie) and I have never heard an imam, ustaz or ustazah speak. Religious education constituted of listening to readings of the Quran and a lot of discussion work where my siblings and I would have to think about what a passage in the Quran is likely referring to in the context of the time, and what the message might be in today’s. On top of that, 7.30 to 8.30 pm was dedicated to silent reading and we had weekly trips to the library where we would have to borrow at least two non-fiction books to supplement our unorthodox religious education.

After decades lacking in acceptance by the larger community, my parents have become highly reclusive and private, and harbour a lot of distrust towards religious institutions and their faithful. I have always wished that my parents were “normal”—lampu kelap-kelip, Sunni-Muslim, mosque-going, imam-respecting, just-follow-law normal. I hated tip-toeing around my other Muslim friends, hated the questions they asked like, “Why you never go to class nagji? Why your family never fast?” Later, explaining my family’s orientation becomes such a chore that I wish I can just tell people we worship pet rocks named Hurbert, Plefter and Margo and sacrifice kelp on their altars from time to time. I hated feeling that I was intrinsically different from the other Malay/Muslim kids. It is only in adulthood, having gone through a robust education in the ways of reading and having met and forged friendships with a diverse and progressive group of individuals, that I grew to understand how my parents came to be who they are and where they are coming from ideologically. To give credit where it’s due, I would not become the woman I am today without them.

Going back to the issue of marriage, as I mentioned before, due to their religious orientation, my parents do not want me to get married, and they have guarded that view with the ferocity of a dragon guarding its hoard of gold. So the resistance I face in marrying the man I love and who loves me tremendously is further enforced by his race and religious beliefs, which does not sit well with a firmly entrenched dichotomy of ‘We’ and ‘Everyone Else’.

Things at home got rough, and this is with everyone agreeing that my father, prone to physical violence, should be the last, if ever, to know. My brother, who I have been very close to growing up, called me a selfish disappointment for what he viewed as my plan to abandon my duties as a daughter and leave him with full care of my aging parents.

Religion has, of course—(Muslims cannot so much as sneeze without invoking religion)—been dragged into the argument to dissuade me from marriage like a hefty cow hung with gold and money and the souls of a thousand tortured infants. Being with a man of religion, who possesses great fortitude and conviction, is the foremost important thing for a Muslim woman because, no matter how good a person she may be, she is only as good a Muslimah as her husband is a ‘Muslim-man’.

I imagine this must be the scenario at the gates of heaven:

Archangel Keeper:

(Consulting their systems): “Good record! Almost perfect, but sorry, we can’t let you through. Because your husband contemplated on the nature of God within the post-structuralist framework of the signified-signifier relationship. Next!”

Given my family’s orientation, conversion and faithful attendance in religious classes won’t do either because then they view that he would learn the “wrong” kind of Islam. We can’t win. Love, it seems, can’t win.

There is a quote in A Game of Thrones, which goes:

“Love is the bane of honour, the death of duty. What is honour compared to a woman’s love? What is duty against the feel of a newborn son in your arms…or the memory of a brother’s smile? Wind and words. Wind and words.” (Thrones, 1997)

I have a duty to my family, or rather to my mother, who, for almost all of her married life has endured abuse and lived in poverty. She was the sole breadwinner throughout my student life—working a factory job and other part-time jobs to feed her family when her unstable husband would not. She made sure we ate, while she subsisted on just a few biscuits every day. She was there for all of our achievements; she was even there when I went for the university entry interview that would kick-start my journey towards writing and critical, progressive thinking. She is unwell now, and in need of medical attention from time to time. I cannot abandon her because I am the strongest member of the family next to her.

Yet, at the same time in my heart of hearts I know that I want to be with his man, who has guided me towards even greater strength, growth and self-acceptance. In a world of noise, he is my island of quiet; aid after a siege and home after strange and difficult journeys.

I grew to feel guilty about wanting a life with someone I love. I would always feel these gnawing sense of guilt, anger and shame each time I am happy about anything, be it winning an award, getting ice-cream or having a whale of a time with my fiancée. Especially when I am having a whale of a time with my fiancée. And I tended to respond by creating this filthy home of unhappiness and self-criticism, and each time I even allowed myself to be happy, I would crawl back into it and told myself I need to do more to atone.

It got to a point where days just seem to meld into each other and everything felt like its harbouring some fiendish. I got myself into a cycle of staying late in the office to avoid going home, and then getting home so exhausted that I would collapse into bed, still in my office attire and with the lights blazing. Yet, I would be waking up almost every hour, my thoughts keyed to thinking about how I should do more for my family and how I deserve much, much less than what I have right now. I was already a light sleeper but days with little sleep was becoming too much of a norm. Everything everyone does for me must come with a catch in my mind; every ounce of kindness shown to me needed to be repaid ten-fold. All life is a transaction with me needing to pay 200% interest rates.

My declining state of mental health placed a great deal of strain on my relationship with my fiancée. I was manic and he was driven to fatigue with the questions and the breakdowns. It was a heartbreaking day when he suggested for me to seek help. Doing so was probably one of the best decisions in my life, another being my decision to pack up and move out of my family home into a rented bedroom in a sublet apartment. I tell people that I moved because I had the only room in my old place and wanted my brothers to have a room of their own. This is true as I have been toying with the idea for years now without ever having the courage to take the steps for myself. However, I also did so for myself.

I am happier now; fiercer, sharper. I am reading and writing a lot more. It is a quiet little space that I have made my own. Even though the move was wrought with stress and fear, the decision to do so was right. My relationships with my family and fiancée has gotten much better.

However, the question of marriage still remains. It hangs in the air each time I am visiting my family and it is asked by those who know us all the time: “When’s the big day?”

How does one respond to that when the status is as cryptic as the “It’s Complicated” Facebook relationship status?

Right now, we don’t know if there is going to be a big day but we do know that we want a future with each other (and a cat or two) in it. That in itself can be enough to start with and I hope God will understand.

It is a delicate balance between duty and love, and I foresee that it would be so years down the road from now. It seems like the most righteous of stories show heroines and heroes choosing duty over love. Our society practically view that as a virtue. Efficiency in and dedication to work is much lauded over time spent with family and loved ones. However, I believe that one can one still do one’s duty with honour while loving and caring for those who are important. Just so long as one chooses.


Illustration by Ishibashi Chiharu