By Z. Sadiq
The process of understanding who I am has been an ongoing process. There has been a huge change from the 5-year-old kid who only spoke fluent Urdu to the 25-year-old who is too self-conscious to speak in her mother tongue. With hindsight, I can say that there have been many different versions of me. I went through phases in trying to figure out who I am, and I don’t think I can honestly say I’m done with that, but I think I definitely have a better perspective about it all. I think it’s been a process of seeing myself as someone who fits into my culture, religion, or with my group of friends. While I have felt periods of identifying with various groups around me, and the various ideas I have been presented with, the only constant I have ever felt in my own sense of belonging has been in the art I consume, specifically, the books I read.
Reading was always the place that I could escape into by finding people and places I fit in with. There was one trilogy I read where the main character had the same birthday, to the year that I did. Her family lived in a home with her grandfather, and he died when she was 9- another parallel. She saw a lot of her interests reflected in her grandfather, and if the books I have of his are any indication, so do I. She also travelled through time. Which I will admit isn’t a skill of mine, but for those 3 books, I was her, I went back and met my granddad. I got to explore the past and go on an adventure. I have always been able to suspend my disbelief to fall into stories where the main characters don’t look like me, aren’t from the same place as I am, but we can share that experience of self-discovery. Books have always been the way that I have done that.
Growing up in an environment where I didn’t share the same cultural background as my friends, and where I preferred to stay in and read than go outside and play during recess, books were a place I was able to find myself. I went to a small, relatively homogenous Shia Islamic school. And while I didn’t really have to face an issue of whether or not to pray or wear the hijab (since that was all mandatory anyway), I did struggle to figure out how I fit in with the groups of people around me. I didn’t like sports like the athletic kids, I liked learning, but I didn’t really care about my grades as much as the smart kids. This is perhaps why I guess I fell into a level of religious fanaticism that was in no way enforced by the adults in my life. I was taught very binary definitions of right and wrong and 25-year-old me would argue that I internalized that to an unhealthy degree. 9-year-old me would argue that music was haram (forbidden), and it was my job to inform all the adults around me of the mortal sin it was to play the radio. Sometimes I do think if the child-me met the adult-me, she would be scandalized by the fact that I, ironically, religiously listen to music. She would probably also be deeply disappointed that I no longer cared about physical contact with the opposite sex. I don’t think all the values I held at that age were bad, but in the absence of a lot of other activities to cling onto, I found my identity stemming from a religious, moral binary and fiction.
"The nature of the community that I was in also meant that while I was not allowed to go out alone with other Shia, Muslim, hijab-wearing friends, they were off exploring themselves, going to parties, having secret boyfriends, and trying cigarettes."
This ‘Otherness’ that I identified with as a kid and still struggle with was reinforced by the conversation I would hear around the ‘culture vs. religion’ debate. My parents were both born in Hyderabad, India, and all aspects of my culture were relegated to things that held me back, boxed me in, and enforced gender normativity on me. Accordingly, cultural expressions of religion all became a symbol of these things that were (in my mind) holding me back. I was always deeply suspicious of things like kundey (honestly, I still struggle to explain it, but basically it is making food as a part of devotional prayer) I never understood the rationale, and also realized it was very culturally specific. Lectures in Urdu were automatically not progressive, Indian clothing was unnecessary, music was haraam (forbidden), the customs not in line with religious values, you get the idea. While I no longer hold these views, for over 20 years, I did. I was in circles where the only experience I had of my culture was when I was told boys could stay out later than girls, or girls needed to have ‘sharam’ (shame) and dress in certain ways. The idea of a partition was pushed in the centres that I went to and the youth events I attended, and that was always, in my mind, a by-product of cultural norms. I was a 15-year-old in an Indian outfit, and a hijab at a cousin’s wedding and an aunty decided to “fix” my dupatta (scarf) to go over my chest. I was not a particularly curvy 15-year-old, and this was not some skin-tight body-con outfit for any of that to be necessary even from a conservative religious standpoint.
Getting into high school only deepened my disdain for those cultural norms. For someone as relatively sheltered as I was, high school was more of a culture shock than an immersive experience. I stayed in my own little enclave of people I knew before, and I was too shy to reach out and make friends with anyone I may have actually had anything in common with. The nature of the community that I was in also meant that while I was not allowed to go out alone with other Shia, Muslim, hijab-wearing friends, they were off exploring themselves, going to parties, having secret boyfriends, and trying cigarettes. All while I was blissfully unaware. When I would express a desire to travel, explore, or do anything out of the norm, I was always told that I could when I got married- which was another cultural norm I have pushed against. While I would get into arguments…and in trouble, my friends decided it was smarter not to push the issue, be quiet, and do whatever they were getting up to without me. This distance between my friends and I only grew wider as I got into university excited to finally learn things I wanted to know more about, instead of going there to get a degree and tick another box off a checklist.
However, it was while at university that I was met with another form of “Otherness”. Suddenly, I had to frequently justify wearing a hijab, breaking my fast later than the Sunni Muslim majority, or explaining the historical differences between the sects. With my argumentative nature, the prospect of having debates and discussions called to me. Sitting down with a friend and discussing why Shia’s don’t have the best opinion of the first three Caliphs was something I prided myself in being able to tactfully manage. Identifying deeply with my Shia religious identity proved helpful when I was confronted with the questions of why we broke our fast 10 minutes later because I had already consumed enough religious content to explain those theological reasons. Thinking back on it, there was an adult family friend who used to ask me those kinds of questions when I was only 12 years old. In hindsight, I feel it was unfair of an ill-educated 20-something-year-old to confront a 12-year-old about theology, but I was always ready for an argument and never really thought twice about it. As if justifying the underlying idea of who I was to other Muslims wasn’t enough, I also decided to study the philosophy of religion, just so that I was confronted with some atheism too. Now, if I was to play my own armchair psychologist, maybe not really feeling like I fully fit in, became something I wanted to seek out to some degree.
"When I moved out and lived on my own for the first time, I was able to really understand who I was independent of all the expectations of who I should be."
Nonetheless, it was also while at university that I studied Islamic history- being introduced to the Mughal empire as the South Asian arm of that. I pushed back against learning Urdu, citing to my family that the language was created by immigrants in a new environment, I said that as a Canadian, I was forming my own cultural ideals. Studying philosophy was another place I was able to erase the Otherness I felt as someone who thought differently. I wanted to discuss Socratic dialogues, talk about moral reasoning, but I always felt as though societal norms and litigious religious discussions always sidelined it. The identity within my religious background was beginning to shift.
At the age of 25, I am still working through my identity, trying to find spaces where I don’t feel that Otherness that can be so alienating. Something I have learned, however, is that Otherness will always exist in some form or the other. I grew up around people that shared (mostly) my ethnic and religious backgrounds. Yet, it was only when I drastically changed my environment that I was able to not feel that Otherness as extremely. When I moved out and lived on my own for the first time, I was able to really understand who I was independent of all the expectations of who I should be. I went ahead and lived on my own, travelled and did all the things I had long been told I needed a husband for.
I wasn’t around people that I fit in with perfectly, we didn’t have everything in common, and there were definitely times where I explained my views, beliefs, and actions. I feel like the main difference was really trying to see who I was and who I wanted to be without the pressure of family and community. My year abroad living on my own wasn’t some utopia, but it allowed me to explore the aspects of my identity that I was struggling with. I was able to experience my culture independent from my religion for the first time. My religious identity was led entirely by myself, and I got to choose how I presented myself to the outside world.
Overall, I would say that understanding myself has always been somewhat of an academic endeavour for me. I have identified myself in compartments of identity. I will acknowledge the privileges I have had of socio-economic comfort, my passport being Canadian, and my parents being supportive of my onslaught of questions and divergent behaviour. In a community where all my peers are married and having children, they have supported me pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable from a South Asian girl. I’m able to think about who I am in this context because of those privileges afforded to me, and I am incredibly grateful for that.
Looking at the cultural, religious, and personal aspects of me begs the question of how I see myself. Who I am and what I am interested in has always been the strongest of the 3, and when the other 2 are questioned and pushed, I find myself falling back towards stories, history, and philosophy to understand what I think, who I am, and where I see myself fitting into the world. I’m getting closer to 26 years struggling with these questions, and while I don’t have it all figured out, I definitely have a better handle on it now than I did before.
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