Dr. Bhatti is an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics and Biomedical Research Scientist specializing in Neonatal-Perinatal Medicine at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, where she also serves as Adjunct Assistant Professor of Ophthalmology at the Center’s Dean McGee Eye Institute. She received her medical degree from the prestigious Aga Khan Medical College. As she explains in this candid narrative, her love of science and medicine led to a profound change in her beliefs and in her family.
I seemingly had the perfect life: I fell in love with a great man, a physician husband who was committed to our marriage; had two beautiful children, as well as a career I loved passionately. Years had been spent in training and specialization, with moves across continents and multiple states, but after completing our training, we finally moved to Oklahoma City to find the perfect academic job for me. Luckily my husband also found his dream job. Through my work, I get to live science and education everyday. It is what I believe in and remain committed too. Every day, as I watch the babies I am entrusted to care for grow and change, my faith is strengthened. In this, I have found a way to express my love, faith, and place in this world. I have finally found purpose and spirituality – two things that were lacking for decades in my life.
But here is the problem: in the process of this discovery, my faith has shifted.
Here, I need to back up a bit and give you all some context. I grew up in a deeply religious orthodox Muslim family that identified with The Jamat-i-Islami and at that time Maulana Maudoodi. Although born and raised in Canada, my family moved back to Pakistan when I was 14. It was partly a desire on my father’s part to return to the homeland and serve, but there was more. You have no idea how many times I heard whispers: “Our daughters are westernizing! We must take them back before it is too late.”
I was devastated. Internally alarmed and wounded. How could I leave all that I loved behind? The only life I knew? But outwardly, I was the eldest daughter and so had to maintain calm. I needed to be the support that my mother needed as she immigrated with her three children, leaving her husband behind for five years.
I was tasked with watching my two younger siblings, help with housework and above all, with being the daughter who would not dishonor her family. That is a huge burden for any girl, let alone a 14 year old to carry. I wore a head scarf from 5th grade on and, once we moved to Pakistan, a full veil and covering (burqa), even over my face (a naqa’ab) for many years. These things were not to be questioned, so it became a part of our identity. It is what we did and who we were.
But I remained hollow inside. I still remember times, feeling guilty for not feeling any deep spirituality during prayer. Our social interactions were only with deeply religious families. I was not allowed to talk to boys and was sent to an all-girls school. The “normal teenage” girl in me did rebel though a few times. I would secretly talk to boys in our neighborhood as I dreamed of being loved and whisked away by my prince charming. The fantasies were always short lived. I would get caught and ultimately scolded. But mostly, there were endless tears on my parents’ part, trapping me to feel forever guilty. I was a disappointment and dishonoring them. The shame! But in my heart of hearts breaking, as much as there was teenage “I hate my parents” in my defiance, but paining them was intolerable to me.
There was no winning in this game and so my only escape was to leave home and the only way to escape was to go to study somewhere far away. I was a good student. All-rounder, debater, writer of poetry, good at science. But also indoctrinated in the ways of a good soon-to-be-wife, i.e., I could cook and clean as well as any potential soon-to-be-propositioned-bride. So guess what happened?
I became the lottery to be won as a perfect daughter-in-law for every woman in our family with an eligible son. I was coveted; my Canadian passport was lusted after. I was turned into a trophy prize. Young men in our family became bold, as did the older ones. Some made advances. A few even dared to touch me. Blackmail me and threaten me. I was sexually molested for the first time at fifteen by a close relative. Naively, I believed I could sound an alarm and he would be banished forever, so I turned to my mother. Even though the perpetrator was scolded, I was told it was MY fault for allowing his advances. And he continued to frequent our home. The second time I was raped, I stayed silent, so sure the blame and shame would land on my own head. By this point, I hated everything about my near and extended family and especially Pakistan. I hated Pakistan.
Medical school was my escape. Luckily, because I had always been a smart kid, I got accepted into Aga Khan University. Unfortunately though, we were a white-collar, middle-class family that could barely afford the steep tuition. A combination of scholarships, family aid and my parents putting together their meager savings finally had me on my way to Karachi.
Once there, I finally rebelled in full glory. The monster was unleashed and I broke every rule just for the sake of breaking it. I smoked, drank, drugged, and made out with boys who wanted to. I was bold, would venture out into the city on my own. Sneak out of the hostel to eat paratha’s at 3 am at Sabzi Mandi with the truck drivers. Because I could. And I would. The young mind suppressed had finally gained freedom. All I wanted in the end was to discover the world and to be loved, respected, and successful at what I did.
Instead I soon gained a reputation of being a slut. As a rule-breaker and a troublemaker and inciter of misbehavior and debauchery. I became one of “the fringe.” Because I loved my obviously-gay-best-boyfriend. Because I sang at the top of my voice. Because I didn’t give a fuck about what anyone said or thought of me. I was free! But, alas, I knew my freedom was temporary.
By the rules of my parents, I would never be able to return to my beloved West until I was married. Every time a suitor would arrive at my parents’ door, my heart would stop beating in fear of the proposal being accepted and me potentially trapped in this despot forever!
So, very desperately, the first guy in med school who made the first serious proposal and claimed to love me was the winner. The “winner” as it turned out, was a controlling, obsessive compulsive depressed soul, who resorted to abusive behavior. But one is blind in desperation and in naïve young love. A year after graduation, I married him, but very quickly the horror of an abusive manic spouse emerged. The medical career I loved and wanted so badly was becoming a fading fantasy. And the sanity and peace I so desired was nowhere near. I barely escaped that abusive relationship with my life (yes, he threatened to kill me).
My depression, anxiety and mental turmoil finally couldn’t take anymore and I broke, sinking into a major depressive state. After much coaxing, and a near attempt at my own life, I finally sought professional psychiatric help. Here I must thank the few loving friends who selflessly reached out and saved me. Needing security and time to heal, I chose to return to my family; the same family I had once run. Therapy, medication and the love of these few close friends slowly brought me back from the dead.
I found love again. This time, I felt I had matured and so, felt compelled to choose wisely. A well-educated, liberal-minded, but still respectable and financially stable man. My family understandably balked at the idea of me choosing my own spouse again. But have you guys caught on yet that I am kinda stubborn? And willful? And an independent spirit? Qualities intolerable in females in any modern society, let alone the one I grew up in. My new in-laws were wary of me. I could sense it. But they gave in to their son’s persistence. After all… I was a divorcee. A woman who spoke her mind. And from a class of society beneath them. But luckily my mind, my culture, my intelligence and ability to maintain a perfect household eventually won them over. But the remnants of distrust remained. I could feel it.
My significant other, though fairly liberal, was still a practicing Muslim. I, on the other hand, began to question EVERYTHING. How could one follow faith blindly? Why was finding the true interpretation so hard? Why was so much in the Holy Book misquoted and misrepresented for personal gain, yet never questioned by the masses? How could God allow children to suffer and die? I remember several heated discussions with my father-in-law and relatives — but in the end, I was always shut down. Once we had kids, it was even harder. I questioned the Qari who taught my children to read the Qur’an. By rote memorization and no idea of what they were reading. My disparaged six-year-old son eventually refused to attend classes. He was so much more intellectually aware than I ever gave him credit for.
The more I treated babies, cried with families, and delved into science, the more humanistic I became. One might say that my faith strengthened, but not in the direction of the faith I was born into and raised within. I began to change and actually became unhappy in the life I was living. It was such a sham. And I had a deepening sadness that no one around me could see. Not even my husband.
To all, I was the perfect mother. We were the ideal couple. The ones who worked and balanced family and careers. I had dinner parties for 50 people at my house and had the best decorated house on the block on Halloween. But I felt hollow and lonely.
But the Internet is a wonderful place and I finally found loving, accepting, and enlightened individuals who became good friends. They recognized and helped me understand that the changes in me were okay. This support base enabled me to accept my evolving identity with peace. Yet internally, I felt I was being unfaithful to my husband, hence we grew even further apart. Here, I have to add that I made many a mistake. I was not perfect; I was not always a pleasant wife. But that’s life, right? We will never be perfect and flawless.
Change is never easy. But, after years of throwing religion, humanism, kindness and rebellion back and forth I began to move towards a happy medium. I have struggled but finally have found the courage to finally declare myself a Secular, Agnostic, and Humanistic individual. I believe in a higher power. Just not in the doctrine of any organized religion. I felt the need for no middleman to be the medium between the universal truth and me.
I knew this would be unacceptable in both my own family and that of my husband, himself the ever-obedient son to his parents and tradition. This is when I made the biggest mistake and only regret of my life. In a chance meeting with an old friend, I found solace and a kindred soul. Both of us were tormented and in completely unhappy marriages. I wish it had been different, but the thrill of finding someone who understood me in the moment had me succumb to infidelity. But had that not happened, we would have maintained that false life and status quo forever. It was the fire that was necessary to push me to complete acceptance of my identity and the situation I was in.
My love affair was short-lived. But the newly freed spirit could never go back to my old life again. Although he forgave me, reconciling my growing agnosticism and spirituality with my husband and his family was impossible. Our differences grew and with them the fights. Accusations hurled. Distances widening. As we realized how different we had become, we grew further grew apart. That deepening gap ultimately caused me to make the painful decision to ask my husband for divorce.
I am now a single mother sharing joint custody of our children with my ex-husband. My boys are 9 and 11 and the loves of my life. I am completely involved in their lives and school and activities. Their father and I found peace with the inevitable, and are very civil with each other and work together to give the boys all they need. But I am so tired. There are times that I just want to stay in bed for days. Juggling the boys’ schedules, managing after-school programs, baking birthday cakes, running a basic science lab, writing grants, and a running a clinical trial. Some days I just want to kick it all out, stop, and retreat into a shell.
It also hurts when I face criticism of others, especially from my community and extended family. “She is selfish. She doesn’t care about her kids. She left her husband because she thought she was too good for him.” My parents and siblings have been unable to accept my apparent apostasy (despite my reiteration of how spiritually strong and content I have become). I am a disbeliever. And that is unacceptable. Period.
One of the greatest struggles has been fighting off accusations of being a mother who could not care less for her children. Can people not understand that I choose not to make a choice between my career and children? That I chose to not have them grow up in a household with constant discontent and fights? That I have deep respect for my ex-husband? That he is a good man – just not for me? That it was unfair for us to keep pretending? That my kids are always there along with my work, both equally important?
I am a kind person. A person who wishes well for all. I want to see a better world for women and children. I am a staunch feminist. I want to make scientific discoveries that will cure children who go blind. My heart bleeds at the poverty and war and politics plaguing our society and all I want to do is HELP. I do what I can, when I can but I always wish I could do more. And at every step I have my children with me. I recently joined Fahim and Naeem Rahim (old med school mates) of The JRM Foundation for Humanity during their medical mission trip to Chitral in Pakistan to help with the earthquake relief effort. I hope to keep working with them in the future. This is my religion. This is my life.
The guilt is a tricky bugger though; one that hovers. That is, until I get a hug from my sons, or a smile or kiss, and then all the exhaustion and pain vanishes. “My mommy bakes the best cupcakes IN THE WHOLE WIDE WORLD!!!” or “My mommy takes care of babies with boo-boos!” I see a post from a former NICU baby’s parents saying how much it meant to them to have me in their lives. A colleague appreciates the relevance of the science we have produced. A nurse pats me on the shoulder and gives me a big hug out of the blue. A moment, a spark of love and appreciation and my strength slowly comes back. This is what makes it all worthwhile.
I am not looking for validation, pity, or even a kick in the ass. I just hope that my story reaches a wider audience. One that can see that we are human and we make mistakes. But we also grow and build and regain strength. That spirituality and faith comes from the heart. Not from the rote memorization of foreign verses and repetitive traditional symbolism.
I say this all out loud and hope that someone, somewhere understands. And can see that they are not alone.