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On Writerly Courage: Rhino Skin and God Consciousness

September 28, 2011

My post on singlehood was recently published in AltMuslimah, and, for the first time, I experienced what it is like to have my thoughts disseminated to a much larger Muslim community.

Before I started blogging, I was warned to be ready for the inevitable: not all readers, I was told, will be happy about what I’ve written. So I braced myself. It wasn’t easy, but I dealt with it a lot better than I would have had I not been aware of the need for rhino skin and God consciousness.

I’m luckier than the many, many people whose lives are under threat because of the things they write. I am far more blessed than those who live under siege, who make sacrifices to say what needs to be said for the betterment of their political and social conditions. I’ve got nothing over these people. But I will whine. I will indulge. So bear with me.

See, the irksome paradox is that in order to be a writer who has to be heard, you have to say something original, and in order to glean insight for that originality, you have to be sensitive. So when you have to write the damn thing, you employ all the hypersensitivity you are blessed or cursed with. But when it’s time for the readerly public to deliver their verdict, it’s time to don the cloak of rhino skin: supremely thick skin. The sensitivity that was such an asset in the writerly process becomes a liability, so you just have to suck it up, maintain some semblance of dignity, and stand firmly by what you say.

Tom Petty’s Rhino Skin got me through a lot of rough times because it’s such a tender, honest testament to the stark reality of being in this world. The name of the song has entrenched itself in the part of me that tends to take things too seriously. “Deep breaths. Rhino skin. Rhino skin.”

It took a very thick skin–rhino skin–to read comments from people who disagreed with the piece and took out their metaphorical label makers to make all-encompassing generalizations about Muslim women generally and myself specifically. My friends plead with me to not take it to heart, to not even read such feedback, for that matter. But I can’t do that. Readers who have issues with what I’ve read glanced into my mind, and they didn’t like what they saw. Again, that’s inevitable. Some will love what they see, some will hate it, some will think it’s just meh. But I can’t just surround myself with praise and flowers and sunshine and pretend everything’s fine. There is no right and wrong way of reading anything. Who am I to say that a commentator with the finesse of an oaf and the empathy of a dull three-year-old is completely and utterly off the mark? Maybe that dullness, that oafness, allowed him to see something that would have been completely missed by the rest of us.

So I can’t filter out that kind of feedback. I need rhino skin and God consciousness to handle it. Rhino skin dealt with actually fielding the arrows shot my way. But I realized that I wasn’t alone in doing so. I had a source of strength, the strength that comes from this comes from turning to Allah, doing a writerly duaa, and in it acknowledging that He alone knows what my intention in writing that piece was. He alone knows what a struggle it was to be able to think the thoughts needed to write that piece.

Am I a fitna-mongerer? Am I pushing pushing singles over the brink into a zina-infested existence? I pray that that it not be so. I’m not one to rule out that possibility. But Allah is.

The assumptions of people thinking I am glorifying something illicit hurts, and the thought that there is any sliver of truth in what they say is what haunts me. What it does in the long run, however, is make me turn to Allah and pray that the things I say only be a source of good, and that I keep being blessed with the courage to write, and that I do so in a way that brings others closer to His light, not away from it.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Shahrazad permalink
    September 28, 2011 2:34 pm

    I & my du’aa are with you, my Sister! Jazak alLah khayr for your courage & sensitivity.
    The patriarchy that infects our world & our Islam is responsible for the concept that productive, happy singlehood is fitna. Only alLah(swt) & our love for Her(swt) should control our lives – not men, government or the Ummah.
    Hold your head high, my beautiful Sister!

  2. September 28, 2011 2:57 pm

    Salaams – I’ve been thinking about this issue as I contemplate writing about more personal topics, particularly around my identity as an American Muslim. I definitely don’t have that rhino-skin, and I admire you for stepping out of your comfort zone into a more vulnerable place and sharing yourself from it. However, know that you have many readers and many admirers, and remember that when the haters pop up in the comments sections!

  3. September 29, 2011 4:01 pm

    “Am I a fitna-mongerer? Am I pushing pushing singles over the brink into a zina-infested existence?”
    Heck no! What you definitely are is a darn good writer – don’t stop on account of critics, in fact, embrace them and you’ll find yourself writing some of your finest pieces.

    Keep up the great work 🙂

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