After more than four years, I finally understand the meaning of “it’s not about me” in the fullest sense of the phrase.

In order to illustrate how I finally came to this understanding, allow me to bring you back to a time long ago when I was a young(er), naive woman subconsciously driven by ego.

The beginning

The year was 2016. I had just started a Masters program in a field of study that intersects with economics, sociology, history, and political science. I had been accepted to the oldest, most prestigious public university in Malaysia – the University of Malaya, where their Development Studies program is rated to be in the top 50 global ranking by Top University. I was accepted into this program with zero academic background on anything related to political science. For my bachelors degree, I was trained as an English teacher who had a love for Literature (with the big L).

In that year, I was at my prime. I was fearless. I was bold. I was able to speak for hours non-stop without looking at my notes. I was articulate. I used my intellectual gifts to speak up on social justice issues, especially those that impacted Muslim women in a muslim-majority country like Malaysia.

Ramadan that year, I made a conscious, political decision not to feel ashamed of my body the way that reductionist Islam had taught me to – that when a woman who is on her period and cannot fast during Ramadan, she is to hide herself from the world to avoid being shamed by others, if they find out that she is menstruating.

This decision made me choose to live unapologetically feminist and Muslim. It means I no longer hide to eat, either in private or in public, during Ramadan on days that I am not fasting. It means I refuse to live by the woman-hating notion that a woman is on “shameful mode” when she is on her period, that her menstrual blood is dirty, and her “condition” during this time should be treated with contempt.

I refused to accept teachings that teach women to hate our own bodies, and all the biological systems that come with them, especially our reproductive system. I was living on fire, but at the same time, fire was something that was told to me is waiting for me in the afterlife. That logical inconsistency in others gave me a lot of confidence in my own logical processes. So I held on to my convictions.

That conviction drove patriarchal Muslims mad. Very mad.

“How dare she insult Islam!” they said, projecting their spiritual insecurities on the easiest targets they could find.

One of the funniest comments I received was “Maryam Lee single-handedly undermined the authority of JAKIM.”

Oh wow, I thought to myself. A young, low-income woman with literally no economic, social, and political privileges, “single-handedly undermined” a massive instrument of state power – the national religious institution for Islamic affairs?

That year, was my year. Or it was supposed to be.

The national backlash from speaking publicly about being an unapologetic feminist Muslim has its price. For months after that Ramadan (heck, even until today), I was the reference for a feral girl who has lost her way. A national narrative had been constructed around my existence – a narrative that not only fully rejects my freedom as a woman, but also my independent thinking from male authority.

99% of the narratives constructed around me had been expressed in the most classic examples of how society suppresses a woman’s innate agency to tell her own stories. “She is such an attention whore,” they would say, in an effort to discredit me via character assassination. Adding more statements to invalidate your lived reality, “I bet she was lying about the harassments she faced. She’s not even cute, how could she have been harassed?”

I don’t even want to go into the details of the rape and death threats – they were absolutely horrible, let’s just leave it at that.

From that year on, the bullying would go on like this with every “controversial” opinion I put forward in the public realm. In 2017, I made another political decision – this time it was to no longer wear the hijab or cover my hair, which I no longer consider to be part of aurah. In 2018, I supported protest voting in Malaysia’s 14th General Elections by way of spoiling votes in the ballot box, in keeping with the democratic right to protest and exercise the right to civil disobedience.

All this led to my Great Crash of 2018. I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t write. I couldn’t work. I quit school.

Naturally, I experienced a deep sense of rejection and humiliation. Years upon years of the country telling me that I was a “bad woman”, that I better step in line before I get myself killed. Years upon years of my lived realities, as well as the lived realities of my sisters and fellow countrypeople, being denied over and over again.

I went into hiding. I would perform self-censorship. I would often be in deep thinking, while I cried and cried with soundless screams. I found myself running out of the country, seeking refuge in foreign lands just to feel safe from harsh judgments – even if just for a moment.

But, my long journey has made me realise that the harshest judgments of me had come from myself.

The moment of truth

I cannot recall exactly when I had noticed the way I’d been speaking to myself so unkindly. However, when it happened, I was blown out of my shell-shock.

Shell-shock is a term often used to describe post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. I hadn’t realised how much the effects to my mental health had been to be living in a state of survival for so long. My nervous system had been on alert mode – almost constantly without rest – for so long now, that I was constantly reliving my traumatic experiences in my mind. When it does this, my body receives a perception of danger even when the danger isn’t materially there. I neither did this knowingly nor willingly. I did this because that was what my nervous system is most familiar with, and the one that has had more training.

Before I knew it, I had internalised all the false judgments of others and believed them for myself. Soon, I had believed that I am a “bad woman”, that I should step back in line. Soon after that, I stopped trusting myself, and ceased believing in my own guts. I become fearful of not just my own thoughts, but my own instincts.

I had been living in a repeated state of trauma, even when I was not physically experiencing it, all without my conscious awareness. Psychologists talk about how our egos – what we believe about ourselves – are rooted and formed in childhood. For those whose realities had been consistently denied as a child, seeking validation and acceptance would become a need for the ego, often at the expense of one’s self. And because self-sabotaging behaviours manifest themselves ad infinitum, the nervous system gets comfortable in the traumatic cycles of self-betrayal and seeks to manifest again for a false sense of “safety” (when it really is just familiarity).

“She’s just a child, what does she know?” notice the same style to almost always discredit a child the same way women are almost always discredited. We never believe our children, especially when they bring up realities that the adults are not ready to deal with (like child marriage or child sexual assaults).

When “feral girls” of the world bring up the social realities that patriarchal societies are not ready to deal with, their egos react in the way a child with unmet emotional needs would.

“How could you possibly disrespect the month of Ramadan? I am deeply offended!” even though the month of Ramadan is an object and not a human being, therefore the month cannot feel “disrespected”. Also, Ramadan’s existence does not affect, nor is it affected by, the physical existence of humans. Ramadan, as a signifier of a particular month in a moon year, would continue to exist with or without us.

This is the ego talking – the kind that feels hurt because it personalises everything – even when those things are not personal.

It’s all about ME, the ego says. That person just hates my guts, the ego says. The manager is out to get me, giving me so much work, because the manager has his knives out for me, the ego says. The sky is blue but I want the sky to be orange so why is the sky not orange, is it because I’m not worthy? The ego says.

You can overcome: you are not your pattern

The moment I realised I had been stuck in a loop, I knew I needed help. I knew I needed to learn how to re-parent myself – my inner child, to nurse her through her wounded ego.

I needed to train my inner child what happens in uncomfortable situations, to change the responses of my nervous system from a reactive role to an observant role. Below are a couple of examples:

  1. The bullies who sent me those hurtful messages and threats to my safety had been mean, yes, but their actions had not been a factor of me, it is a factor of themselves. With or without me, they would probably still be hurt over some immaterial issue or concept that may or may not directly affect their lives.
  2. Those very disrespectful colleagues who had been nothing but rude and had been stepping all over my dignity since Day One is not a reflection of my work ethics, it is a reflection of theirs. It is nothing personal. Projecting their insecurities is their coping mechanism to regulate their own nervous systems. Those systems would still likely be triggered or activated even if I wasn’t on the team.

To say that the experience has been liberating is an understatement. It has completely given birth to a whole new person.

I may not yet regain the insane fearlessness, boldness, and eloquence like the ones I used to have, but I am a lot more at peace with myself and the world at large.

To be honest, I didn’t have to change. I didn’t really have to do trauma work because status quo is always comfortable. But I did all this work on myself because I know it is no one else’s responsibility. The same way I am not out to “fix people”, I intend to live a live that does not need be “fixed” by others. Doing that would mean self-betrayal as those “fixes” rarely ever come without strings attached.

It would also be wrong to say that I had threaded through this journey on my own. I had a lot of help from a number of emotionally evolved people, and I still keep them close to me.

The key characteristic I see in all of them is this: the ability for unconditional love, which awards them the strength to hold multiple realities and not crumble in their weight, especially the realities that hurt.

I am coming to the end this entry with a message from a healer within my circle, Meghana Bahar:

My loves, give yourself a huge hug if you are able to love someone even when they show you their worst. You can’t help, you just love unconditionally. And that is a superpower. You are able to love when someone is showing you their darkest, ugliest side. And for that you may not be acknowledged, appreciated, loved back. It’s okay, there is a set of eyes that sees your inner essence clearly. Your blessings are coming.

Indeed, blessings have come and they keep on coming.

I see these blessings when I see sisters stop throwing wounds at one another and instead coach one another to become the highest versions of ourselves. I see these blessings when I could forgive a mistake I made or some unkind words I’d spoken to myself.

Ultimately, I see these blessings when I get to train my inner child to be the mother that I need.

My prayer for today, is that I hope you would see and receive these blessings, too. Insya-Allah.