“So are you a Muslim then?”
I theatrically sighed as though I was trying to find the correct way to word it. But hours of practice ensured that I knew exactly what lines came next.
“No, I don’t think so. I’m just really sceptical of it all. Like how do I know there is a God with no proof?”
“Yeah, same. I don’t know about it all either. Don’t really care.” We didn’t say anything else to each other. My best friend Adam, carried on painting his art piece and I pretended to think about what I was going to begin drawing on the blank bit of A4 that had been placed in front of me.
What I was really thinking about is what punishment awaited me for being so dishonest. My belief in Allah was faltering. The environment around me didn’t really allow for outliers like I was. A Muslim, British Pakistani girl was all too much for the people around me to take in. It’s funny that now, in their workplaces and at university they will have been forced to be tolerant by circumstance. But the same doesn’t seem to apply when you’re teenagers at a school where the teachers are as ignorant and dismissive as your peers. After my experience with wearing hijab, I took on this persona of being an almost atheist. It was a public disguise to hide my culture and religion away from the hate. I was tired of feeling left out and just wanted approval from my peers so I thought this would be the best way to go about it.
It was like a disease of the soul. My public opinion soon started becoming my private opinion too. I literally became obsessed with being accepted and through that process, denying all that was important to me and made me who I am. All the pure, positive thoughts I had of bettering myself as a human being and as a Muslim were replaced with hate for myself, my religion and my culture. These hateful thoughts were decaying away at my personality and instead of partly assimilating myself into “British culture” (whatever that may be), I was just rapidly replacing myself with another personality altogether. I wasn’t really Humaira, the podgy girl from Southall who choreographed a dance to Maahi Ve in the school playground. If it wasn’t for the colour of my skin, I could have passed for any old Emma.
That Ramadan was the worst. I was 15 years old. I think I didn’t even keep half of the fasts. And the half that I did keep, I ended up breaking them for one reason or another. Mainly because I didn’t care. I didn’t want to know. I didn’t even have fear of anything anymore. Not even my own parents. I would hide in the bathroom until two minutes before iftar, come down break my roza, pretend I was going upstairs to read maghrib and then disappear. Spending the night listening to music. I had this one thought running through my head all the time – “I want to be normal.” I realise how disturbing that is now but back then I would literally sit all night crying to myself, wondering why I wasn’t like everyone else. I didn’t pray much either that Ramadan. I just sat and racked up as much sin as possible. I deeply regret my actions. I regret the denial of myself and of my religion.
When Eid came along that year, everybody seemed like they were having an amazing time. I wasn’t because I didn’t do anything worth celebrating that year. Eid wasn’t for me. I truly wish I could go back in time and change that Ramadan. If there was a way I could tell my younger self that it was okay to be me and okay to be Muslim and to stand up for myself against the bullies I would. Alas, an impossible desire.
I guess it’s probably best at this stage to make clear that I am definitely embracing who I am, where I come from and my religion at this moment in time! It was not a permanent state that I had entered but an awful phase that no teenager should have to go through. How did I get out of it? The same rage that put me in this place of pretending I was someone I wasn’t, was the same rage that helped me become myself again.
When I reached Sixth Form and we were all allowed to wear own clothes I, like my peers, wore smart trousers and formal blouses with heels. I was so uncomfortable. And I was angry about feeling uncomfortable for so long. I wasn’t used to wearing ‘english clothes’ all the time. It just wasn’t natural for me. I spent half the day worrying about how I was looking than studying! The last couple years before Sixth Form, the pride for who I was and that faith in Islam and in Allah had been restored through the support of my older sister. This meant that I felt even more out of place again. I tried fitting in by doing what the other kids were doing but obviously it hadn’t worked for me last time. This time, to combat whatever feelings I was having, I decided to start wearing shalwar kameez to school. If I wasn’t going to fit in by assimilating as completely as I could, then I might as well not fit in at all and at least feel comfortable.
The first few weeks were hard but anger fuelled me. Till the day I left, people would stare at me walking into school and I would hear people whispering not so subtly about me. But it was me. I loved it. I would on purpose listen to Bollywood music at full volume when walking into my classes. I would be very quick to correct anyone being ignorant, racist or plain stupid. I even started a fight with a boy who thought it would be funny to make terrorist jokes about my little sister. He almost cried whilst apologising and all his friends saw and so did the head of the Sixth Form. No one stopped me. They all watched. And it was satisfying as fuck.
I started praying again, looking into Islam… I was finding myself all over again. I was discovering the beauty of my religion and really doing my best to connect with other Muslims through social media.
All of this did mean that I was left with no friends by the end of Sixth Form. But the loneliness was also something I was learning to embrace. It reminded me to make sure that in future, I only had friends with whom there was a mutual respect for each other’s belief system and culture as opposed to an underlying hatred. Those few years of pretending to be something I’m not, in the long-term, were so beneficial. Since I left school, the anger left me too.
Striving to be a better Muslim, being positive and happy, learning more about my own culture, and other people’s cultures are things that will never change about me now. No matter what. Because now, I finally feel at peace with who I really am.
My next blog post will be the conclusion of the ‘Ramadan and I’ series where I will talk about this Ramadan. It was really difficult for me to admit to all of the above but I did it mostly because I know someone out there will be able to relate. I hope through this post, I can send a message to those young South Asians and/or Muslims who may be going through the same thing… and say to them what I couldn’t say to myself – I know it’s hard but be your fucking self.
If you went through anything similar or are going through something similar now, regardless of your ethnicity and religion, I’d like to hear from you! Comment below, drop me a tweet or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org