Jameela Alter was born in Calcutta, India, during a time when everything white and western was considered superior, simply the best. Though she was raised a strict Muslim, her well-meaning parents sent her to a Roman Catholic school run by Irish nuns because it “was simply the best”.
“So I grew up learning about Allah first thing in the morning when a mullasaheb came to our house at 7.00 a.m., and by 9.00 a.m. I was in the convent, singing hymns to the glory of Christ. Yes, I was confused, and totally lacking in confidence. Between my parents, the mullasaheb, and the nuns, it was never mine to question who was right, much less make decisions for myself. All I knew was that life was about ending up in heaven or hell, depending on what I did or did not do…”
At seven years old, Jameela was circumcised. It was not a barbaric rite, but a scarring event nonetheless, an event that Jameela carefully folded into her closet of memories, and went back to school. Fast-forward to teenage years when Jameela showed the first signs of wanting to rebel, to run away, to go somewhere quiet so she could think for herself and write. It did not happen. Instead, it was arranged that she would be married by proxy to her first cousin who lived in London. Neither of them was keen on the marriage but the decision was out of their hands. Fortunately, it is very easy for a Muslim man to divorce his wife by simply asking for it. Before she knew it, Jameela was a divorcee with a British passport, without so much as having embraced the man who was once her ‘husband’.
In the second and third decade of Jameela’s life: with a British passport in one hand, and the stigma of being a divorcee in the other, she broke free and travelled overseas. Jameela got married to Steven Alter from Franklin, Pennsylvania, bore two beautiful daughters, got her Masters in Education and trained to be a Montessori teacher. She spent the next thirty years being a wife, mother, and teacher who loved dabbling in arts and crafts as a hobby, but secretly had a very low opinion of herself.
Having a supportive husband, Jameela took a sabbatical and worked from home for an entire year when she wrote her first novel, On Clipped Wings. Of the novel, Jameela says it was “my dream-come-true, semi-autobiographical novel.” Soon after she resumed teaching, she met Marga Fripp whose son, Arthur, was Jameela’s student. Marga invited Jameela to speak about her book, to sell some of her crafts, thus opening a new chapter in her life.
Jameela says that “attending EWI events helped me to realize what my mother had told me many years ago, ‘Never forget, there is always someone, somewhere, who is worse off than you are.’ Thanks to EWI, I’ve not only come to realize how blessed and fortunate I am, but also that I need to cast aside the shadows of those who told me what I can and cannot do, and realize my dreams. I am about to publish my second novel, Barwaalaas (Outsiders) knowing this for sure – my self-concept is way better than it was a few years ago. I now believe in myself, and for these enriching qualities I owe much to Marga Fripp for her confidence boosters and to EWI for being instrumental in helping me realize that I can empower myself to carve my own path on this wondrous planet.”
To other women, Jameela has the following advice: “Believe in yourself, pursue your dreams, help others. The more you give, the more you get. Communicate, ENJOY the journey, and have passion and compassion – both stem from the heart. Above all, have an attitude of gratitude. I start each morning saying a thank you to Him-up-there… The more thanks I give, the more I realize I have so much to be grateful for.”