lifestyle

“You’re not Muslim.... are you?"

 

“You’re not Muslim are you?”

You’re not Muslim are you?” a guy from university once asked me. My heart started beating really fast as I searched for words.

I felt like I was being asked a trick question. I am proud of who I am and all but that particular time I hesitated. I felt like I was about to be ousted. What perceptions does this guy have about my religion?

Will he think of me differently?  “Yes – but I’m still me!” is what I wanted to say. What I actually said was “Well – my parents are (mumble… mumble …mumble)”. I wish I could go back and punch myself in the face.

Many have written about how immigrant kids—those whose parents or grandparents migrated—generally feel a greater sense of loss and isolation. You’re thinking, “Quit whining”, right? I was lucky to be born, educated and raised in one of the best places on earth. I agree. So what’s the problem? Identity. The world is based off of identification. It feeds off it.

Superficial adjectives like ‘black’, ‘rich’, ‘white’, ‘fat’ are meant to sum up a person’s entire complex history and identity in a single word. We form assumptions as a result of these words and what they have come to mean to us in our own contexts. We define others based on those words and we allow them to define ourselves.

For example, when you hear the word ‘virgin’, your entire perception of that person’s identity starts to form around a particular image you have embedded somewhere in your brain about what a virgin looks like, talks like and just generally is like (I personally think of Shoshana in season one of Girls). Being a virgin then becomes that person’s identity; not just a part of it, but the whole thing. They usually are uptight crazies that have no sexual desires and are only attracted to plants and/or religion or something like that, right?

“Identity should never be equivalent to one word or a few words.”

Most people who know me and then find out that I have not in fact had sex tend to think I’m lying. They think it’s some rouse I’ve concocted to make myself seem unattainable or more desirable.  The odd few who do believe me go into shock for a minimum of 45 minutes (this can sometimes last for days and usually involves a lot of annoying questions).

You? The same girl who was dating so and so? The same girl who likes grinding to Kendrick Lamar more than most things on this earth? You pray? You fast? Yes and yes. I just don’t pray and grind at the same time, but that is why there are 24 hours in a day.

Many people have an image of what a Muslim female should look like and, well, I don’t fit it. I don’t wear a hijab or dress in a particular way so it is usually difficult for people to identify me as Muslim and for this reason some have even made fun of other Muslims in front of me. Awkward. In the same way, most people don’t generally identify me as Australian because I have a year round tan.

I, however identify with both. I always think ‘I am Australian and Muslim – so what?’ it’s not like the two are mutually exclusive. Countless drunk men all over the world though, feel the need to point out that “I don’t look Australian” while hitting on me (which is possibly the worst part. Guys: please don’t ever use this as a pick up line!). Or the even better, “But where are you REALLY from?” Oh, yep, because I was lying when I said I was born in Canberra. Who would lie about being from Canberra?

When I was 16, I was walking down a street in Sydney when a woman felt the need to inform me that, “In Australia, we walk on the left”. I wish I could blame my inability to navigate a street on being a tourist or a foreigner, but, alas, I am just a really shitty pedestrian.

You know, the kind that is always getting in the way of a cyclist, a bus or evidently, other pedestrians. Eight years on and the same thing happened to me in the Middle East but according to the angry lady on the travelator, they walk on the right side. Seriously lady? People in the Middle East walk wherever the fuck they want and we all know it.

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While working in Jordan, people would walk into my office and speak to me in Arabic. When I would tell them that I am from Australia and have no clue what they just said, there would be an immediate outcry, “No – we mean where are you REALLY from?” Can someone please tell me already where I am REALLY from because I have no bloody clue apparently? While travelling, I had difficulty getting into a religious site, which is only open to Muslims on Friday because the guards did not believe that I was actually Muslim. Apparently I don’t look Muslim enough so while everyone else walked in with ease, I was asked to provide my passport and questioned, before I was informed that my attire which consisted of jeans and a long top wasn’t okay and was ushered into a stall where I was cloaked up to the point where I was just a tiny floating head.

I felt like a phony and I was wearing so many layers that it looked like I was stuffed inside a sumo suit. Meanwhile there were plenty of Muslim women walking around in jeans inside. Out of curiosity, I decided to keep it on for a few minutes after exiting the site, and the immediate shift in the way I was treated by people was insane. I still like to hope that it was because I looked like I was wearing every piece of clothing I owned, but it definitely felt like a response to the fact that I had a scarf on my head. The exact same people that had been so friendly on my way into the site were suddenly hostile and stand-offish on my way out. Groups of wolf-whistling men fell silent.

Amna

It made me realise that I also subconsciously form opinions about women who choose to wear the hijab. In my context, a woman’s identity is swallowed up by the scarf and corresponding assumptions are made about her beliefs and personality by a simple fashion or dress-code choice. That’s not cool. That needs to change. I am going to continue to wear whatever I want, whenever I want – so why can’t someone else do the same and not have it define their entire identity?

A friend once told me that she has ethnic envy and wished her identity wasn’t so boring because her background is British and Australian. I remember thinking that maybe we are all doomed to be unhappy and self-conscious about our identities – but now I think we just need to acknowledge that where we are born or our cultural background makes up only a part of our identity, not the whole thing. It doesn’t make us boring or interesting in and of itself – that depends on so much more.

Himanshu Suri, a.k.a. Heems, a musician and former member of the Brooklyn rap group Das Racist recently tweeted that in America, people think he’s from India and in India, people think he’s from America. The comfort I got from discovering what I probably should’ve known all along – that there are others out there who will probably never get to experience ‘fitting in’ in the traditional sense—was real. He went on to suggest that if he isn’t from America and he isn’t from India, maybe he is from the ocean in between.

Identity should never be equivalent to one word or a few words. It is far too reductionist, and frankly, we are capable of more. Next time you meet someone or even re-meet someone, try to refrain from categorising them. I know you will want to—I will want to as well – it’s a human impulse – but instead take a minute to bask in the glorious layers of their identity and your very own.

Fresh from a stint with the UN, Amna is a 25 year old Arts/Law Grad from Sydney. She is interested in exploring the issue of identity and the implications this can have for society.

Do you come from a cross-cultural background? Have you struggled with that?

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