In the Muslim community, there is tremendous emphasis on keeping family ties. The plus sides of that are many: the warm and loving company of cousins, aunties, and uncles; the camaraderie that comes with years of shared memories; and the hands-on support during family emergencies.
The downsides, however, can be extremely painful. Not all family members are created equal. Many relatives are harmless, others are cranky, while a few can actually be toxic. When it comes to the topic of estrangement from abusive family members, the silence can be deafening.
I speak from first-hand experience. For the longest time, I had struggled with deep feelings of guilt and shame for choosing not to have my father in my life.
After all, good Muslim girls are meant to invite their fathers to their weddings. Good Muslim girls are meant to smile and keep the peace. Good Muslim girls are meant to forgive and forget. Good Muslim girls also protect themselves from repeat offenders who continually violate boundaries, causing them harm.
I vividly remember one visit to Singapore, when I was still a fresh-faced newlywed. I called one of my relatives her to tell her that my husband and I had arrived safely, and we wanted to visit her. “Have you called your father?” she asked me. I didn’t answer her question. “Please call your father. He’s all alone.”
When we arrived at her apartment, she casually mentioned, “I told your father that you’re coming to see me.” That was her first boundary violation - telling my father where I was, without my consent, even though she meant well. And family members and friends like her always mean well. They see things from the outside: an adult daughter is no longer in contact with her aging father. How sad. This is something that must be fixed! All they need is one meeting, and then blooming flowers and rainbow unicorns will ensue.
The reality is this: when someone is estranged from a family member, there is always a very good reason why. Instead of jumping to conclusions, ask them about it. Respect their decision if they don’t wish to tell you because some things are too painful to explain. Listen to them if they are willing to share. Don’t give unsolicited advice.
After my relative told us my father was on his way to see us, my husband looked at me and asked me if I wanted to stay. I braced myself, and said yes. When my father showed up, let’s just say that that my relative received front row seats to a circus act. My visit ended in me getting up in tears and leaving with my husband, with my relative running after me, also crying.
Over time, it got better. My husband and I eventually worked things out with my father. We had a much happier, mutually agreed upon and consensual visit to my relative’s place. There were no tears, second time around. My father came to visit me in Kuala Lumpur after my first two babies were born.
And yet, it doesn’t always work out that way for many estranged family members. During my years of work as an online counsellor, I have come across so many heart-breaking stories of adult children needing to set boundaries with their abusive family members, but who struggle because of feelings of guilt and obligation. There was a young woman whose mother kept her passport because she wanted her daughter to divorce her husband. There was a young man who felt driven to suicide because of years of physical beatings at the hands of his father. None of this abuse is excusable. None of this is permissible. Self-preservation comes first.
So what does Islam actually say about cutting ties? One of my Islamic jurisprudence teachers spelled it out for me: cutting ties with someone is only impermissible if there is no valid reason for cutting the person off. Valid reasons to cut ties include wanting protection from harm to one’s body, wealth, honour, life, or religion. My teacher explained that according to the Sharīʿah, cutting someone off is defined as: not speaking a single word to the person when meeting face-to-face. Hence, in order to not cut ties with someone, you only need to give salaam to or respond to the salaam of that person when meeting them face-to-face. You do not have to send messages or gifts to the person, or visit them on any occasion.
My father remains the only grandfather to my children. When he does see them, he is kind and playful. He keeps his visits short and sweet. It’s better that way. We don’t dredge up the past, and we focus on the present. It’s taken me years to reach this point with him and yet there are still times when I need to take a break from him. When I am too triggered by him, then I cannot be a present and loving mother to my children. My own self-care comes first, and that comes with temporarily ceasing interaction with my father. And that is perfectly okay.
Raidah Shah Idil is a freelance writer. You can follow Raidah on Twitter @raidahshahidil.
This article is part of SBS Voices emerging Muslim women writers’ series. If you have a pitch, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.