It was lunchtime for us first graders, and I vividly remember everyone staring at me because I had said something so shocking that it caused the world to stop. No, it wasn’t about spoiling some popular show or book at the time. It certainly wasn’t the home-cooked Pakistani food that caught everyone’s attention. And of course, I didn’t peep a bad word at that age.
Everyone was staring at me because I had openly said I was Muslim.
And no one knew what that was – except for what their parents were telling them, or what they saw on TV, such as the classic terrorist stereotype. It wasn’t entirely their fault, as it was a predominantly non-Muslim school. No one else understood why I was Muslim. And no one wanted to understand what being Muslim was all about.
From a young age, even before I was in first grade, I almost always was the only Muslim in my class or sometimes even grade. I didn’t grow up attending Islamic school. Even when there were cultural similarities with my non-Muslim friends, it wasn’t fulfilling me and it made me question my Muslim identity a lot. I felt utterly alone. None of my friends were able to fill that hole. As I grew older, I saw this affecting me in ways I didn’t expect it to – I was nervous about being Muslim.
My parents knew how anxious I was becoming, and decided to switch school districts to a more diverse community. And for the first time in a long time, I was happy. I felt a sense of belonging – I didn’t have to explain why I didn’t eat pork or wasn’t at school on Eid or describe what Ramadan was. I had people I could relate to and because of that, I started getting more active in other masjids and finding myself after a long time. I finally had a purpose, hope.
But in finding my identity, I faced another test from those whom I trusted – my own people. As I aimed to be active in the Muslim community in various ways, I started receiving backlash and hate. Suddenly, I wasn’t “Muslim enough” to be a part of Islamic organizations. Or it was strange for me to be friends with religious people.
I specifically remember a friend at the time had a picture of me in a hijab and made a snippety comment at me because I wasn’t wearing it properly. She then said, “It’s so ironic for you to be a part of a Muslim organization and you’re not even hijabi.” She laughed. But I didn’t – I was hurt. It made me think – do I not belong here, too? Why was I not Muslim enough to be a part of the Muslim community? Was this normal, and would I ever find my identity? Was the Muslim community always this judgemental or were we letting our cultural/personal egos take control of us? How could I be active in a community where half of me was accepted and the other was canceled?
Was my friend wrong? Not entirely – I was not and still am not a hijabi, but I know I will when I am ready. I’m trying. I’m struggling. I’m constantly evolving, developing and strengthening my identity (or at least attempting to). But I know that I’m trying to change for the better and trying to understand more.
As time continued and as I grew somewhat wiser with it all, I realized that I couldn’t change everything around in order to accept myself. Perhaps, I would have or felt more “Muslim” if the external and environmental pressure was gone. But surely I’d never find full peace in this world, nor the contentment I was hungering for. There was nowhere I’d be able to find my perfectly accepting community – especially in this dunya.
Surely all of this is being recorded and watched by the Almighty. And this gave me the push and acceptance I needed – that I was doing my best even on my low days. Even the smallest amount of hope and light inside me was carrying myself towards another day.
Maybe this feeling of loneliness and confusion never ends. Perhaps you and I still find ourselves chasing identities in our late nineties. However, this is something that we grow and adjust to – to make things right by changing the story in the beginning.