Stuck Between Love and Religion: A Women’s Experience Living in Cultural Boundaries

By Victoria Manzo

She walked through the door she had walked through hundreds of times before, but the room before her was as familiar as Mars. The oxygen vanished; she couldn’t breathe as she stepped into a house that was no longer her home.

She felt like an alien within the walls that held her pictures. This was a place she didn’t recognize, a place that housed garbage bags that were filled with her things and carelessly thrown around. It was a place where she was no longer welcomed.

Few Muslims are comfortable with the idea of their son or daughter marrying outside the faith, according to the Pew Research Center. 79% of surveyed Muslims who are married or living with a partner are with someone of the same religion.

Sabrina Yousef is the child of a first generation Italian mother, Maria, and a Muslim Egyptian father, Tarik. She has grown up immersed in multiple cultures and loves every one of them. However, she had to battle the traditions of her heritage, fighting for an interfaith and interracial relationship and her own American identity.

Yousef’s mother grew up in an extremely racist household. Her grandmother made it clear that Maria was only allowed to associate herself with Catholic Italians. Nonetheless, Maria met and fell in love at just twenty years old with a man who had just arrived in America from Egypt.

After keeping their relationship a secret for a year, Maria became pregnant. The couple faced mass anger and resentment from Maria’s family, but nine months later, the couple was married and Sabrina was born.

Maria fell in love with Islam and converted when Sabrina was one year old. As a result, Sabrina was raised to also love her religion. She follows many Islamic guidelines, but she does not agree with every rule associated with being Muslim.

Yousef believes that “religion is a cluster of interpretations.” People confuse religion with cultural norms and interpret tradition as actual religious belief. In her eyes, someone who drinks is no less of a Muslim, because their interpretation of the Quran may just be different.

“One interpreted norm is that a Muslim woman must marry a Muslim man,” said Yousef. “ I feel that is what a set of people interpreted from reading the Quran. Marrying a man who is not Muslim doesn’t make me any less of a Muslim. Love doesn’t have a religion.”

This can cause a lot of confusion and distaste among other Muslims. Sabrina’s own parents disagree and expect her to marry a Muslim man. They believe in the traditional interpretation of marriage. Sabrina feels this requirement is a hypocritical expectation, given her parents history.

According to the Pew Research Center, “Four-in-ten Americans who have married since 2010 have a spouse who is in a different religious group.” Millennial perception of interfaith marriage is seemingly different from those of older generations.

When Yousef was young, she was simply not allowed to date because “boyfriends” don’t exist in Islam. After meeting men, women are allowed to get to know them in a very strict, “respectable” manner, inquire about commitment, and get married. The man goes from being an acquaintance to a husband.

Yousef explains that the Quran says nothing about this; however, it does state that you may not have sex before marriage. The restriction of boyfriends is a type of religious guideline, because the best way not to have sex before marriage is not to have a boyfriend before marriage. This rule is only traditionally enforced for women.

For this reason, Maria watched Sabrina throughout high school. Maria charged Sabrina’s phone in her room every night and read her messages. If her mother suspected Sabrina was talking to or about a boy, Maria would take the phone away. Even male friends weren’t allowed in her life.

“She’s lucky I didn’t come out as gay!” exclaimed Yousef. “Nowadays, they might restrict talking to everyone.”

Despite her mother’s close scrutiny, at age fifteen Yousef met a black man named Phil. Throughout their two-year relationship she managed two phones, one her family knew about, and another secret phone she hid to talk to him. She saw him by sneaking around and lying to her mother.

“He was my first love, and it overpowered all of the negative emotions my mother gave me,” stated Yousef. “I wasn’t crying about not being able to tell her; I was smiling because I felt blessed to get away with it.”

The secrecy was hard, but it didn’t affect her relationship. They both felt happy just to work around it. When their relationship came to a close, it had nothing to do with matters of race or religion. To this day, Sabrina’s parents still don’t know about her first relationship.

“Everything changed in my second relationship,” said Yousef. “It didn’t take long for me to realize that it was the relationship I was ready to fight for. I was no longer lucky to get away with hiding it because it didn’t deserve to be hidden.”

After being with Shomari for about five months, she decided it was time for her parents to know. This was a moment Sabrina was always terrified about, but she needed to do it.

On Shomari’s birthday, Yousef told her mom she was going on a date. To her surprise, things went pretty well. When he drove her home, Maria met him for the first time. She was okay with the relationship for a few days; however, things changed when Sabrina was going to meet his family. Maria realized that things between the couple were actually serious.

“She wouldn’t let me leave the house. She stood by the front door and just cried and screamed,” said Yousef.

“I’m not gonna let you do this to your future!” Maria exclaimed while continuously cursing and yelling at her daughter.

Sabrina left the house anyway, crying as she departed. Throughout the night her mother and father, who had divorced when Yousef was nine, came together under a common goal of setting their daughter straight. Feeling emotionally and physically threatened, Yousef did not return home that night but rather elected to stay with a friend.

“I needed to make that decision so that they knew I couldn’t be forced to do anything I didn’t want to do,” said Yousef. “For my own sanity, and to avoid physical altercation, I couldn’t go home that night.”

She didn’t return home for one week. During that time, her mother tried angrily contacting her, but eventually cut Sabrina’s phone line. The only family member that genuinely contacted her was her brother Sammy. He was scared and begged her to come home. Out of care for him, and hopes that the situation with her mother would improve, she went back.

“My room was stripped. Everything I owned was in trash bags. I regretted coming home the moment I walked in the door. I was scared of my mom but I wanted her to understand and relate herself to my situation and accept it.”

Nonetheless, Sabrina went to sleep. The next morning she was awoken by a very angry Maria who slammed the Quran on her bedside table and said: “Sabrina, I want you to read this and think about what you have done.”

Yousef needed her mom to know that decisions in her life needed to be respected. Yousef left expecting that she may never be able to return home again. She even needed to download a seperate app to talk to her brother because Maria had threatened to take his phone away if she caught him talking to Sabrina.

Six days later, Yousef got a message from her mother.

“This time I could see that she was making an effort, so I returned home not knowing what would happen,” said Yousef. “I asked her if she would accept my relationship; she said no. I told her I would not live in her house and left for the third time.”

Sabrina’s stepfather chased her proposing to arrange a compromise. In front of her mother and stepfather she had to swear with her hand on the Quran that she would not have sex with Shomari. With that she could return home and continue to date him; however, he was not allowed in the house and they would have nothing to do with him.

“Was having sex a deviation of the Quran? Technically yes, but not really to me, said Yousef. “My relationship with god is stronger than me putting my hand on a book for my mother. You don’t need scripture to have faith.”

A year later, Maria suspected Shomari had been in the house, so she restricted Sabrina from being home alone. Yousef, an adult, was told her father needed to babysit her. When Maria left for a weekend, she changed all of the house locks without telling her daughter.

“I packed all of my stuff,” said Sabrina. “It was the last time I ever slept at that house.”

Sabrina and Shomari broke up a short time after. She believes this happened largely because he felt very unaccepted in her family.

“I don’t regret any of my decisions. My love for him was the cherry on top, but not the ice cream Sunday. This was the start to my independent life. Now my parents understand who I am and know they can’t control my beliefs.”

Yousef believes that it’s okay to pick and choose what you believe in.

“Everything in this world, everything we know, is what we have been told by another human. People need to find their own path and their own relationship with god.”

Editor’s Note: Certain names have been changed due to the sensitivity of the subject.

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