That is a view of some of my clothes in my closet. There are even more clothes in boxes behind these. There is another little closet inside this closet containing more clothes. Yet every time I walk in there, I can find nothing to wear. I am not in to brands and I will always choose comfort and convenience over fashion. Most of the time my clothes fit me well. I have just started to feel increasingly hideous in anything I wear. Nothing “suits me”, whatever that means. Things are too tight, or too loose, too bright or too dull or too revealing or I feel I just look ugly.
I know in my heart that the problem is not in the clothes I own or in my body. It is about something more profound. It is about my identity and what I see when I look in the mirror. I despise these western clothes, and I feel trapped inside them. Even when I supposedly look “my best” or “awesome” or sassy/sexy/cute and so on according to popular opinion and attestations of friends and family, I am not at ease. I am uncomfortable in the skin that I wear.
I see others in the same garb so at ease with themselves and yet, there I am feeling like I stick out like a sore thumb.
We grew up (my sisters and I), as immigrant children in various Muslim countries. We went to private schools with people of all races and religions. I had friends who were Muslims, Baha'i, Christian, Hindu and Sikh.
Even though I had never been to England at the age of 15, I knew the difference between Catholic and Protestant, the violent history of that divide and the football teams each group supports. I knew about the rich cultural diversity of India, thanks to my Indian friends. They were all Indian but they spoke different languages, ate different food, had varying religious beliefs and even looked starkly different from one another depending on which part of the country they were from. I have never been to India.
I did not speak Arabic and understood little, but I can make a pretty good guess from the accent of the Arabic a person is speaking, an Arab’s body language and facial features, which part of the Arab world they may be from.
Although I identified myself, or was often forced to identify myself because of the way I look, as a Pakistani, I know that I am very far removed in identity from those people who grew up in Pakistan.
My friends in school organized more in to groups based on language, sometimes economic class, or just the usual labels of nerd, jock and cool, much like kids in schools in the West.
I was a “brain” and I was Pakistani. That was my identity. I was not pretty or sporty enough to be cool. I was not rich or white or Arab so my group of friends were mostly Asians of varied cultural and religious backgrounds. We looked out for each other and kept to ourselves.
I am every bit a product of my society than any other person here in Canada. Although labelled a Pakistani, my role models were not Nazia Hassan or Faiz Ahmed Faiz. I am technically a Muslim but my role models were not Aisha (ra) or Khadijah (ra) or Ali (as). Rather my friends and I listened to Alanis Morissette and idealised her explicit renditions of a woman’s experience. Everyone loved Brad Pitt and Salman Khan. We wanted to go to university, have successful careers, fall in love, have kids, live comfortably in luxurious houses and be able to buy whatever we fancied. That was the dream.
My “Islamic studies” at school were erratic because we kept moving in and out of schools and pretty much came to an end at grade 5. (Yes that is the extent of my formal Islamic education!) After that the focus shifted more on our worldly education, school schedules, entry to college, saving money, and planning for the “future”.
I was lucky to have the chance to make multiple trips to Mecca with my family before the age of 10. Over time my family became more interested in making trips home to Pakistan to connect with family members than to travel to Mecca for pilgrimage. All that remains now of my experience are beautiful memories of pilgrimage as a child.
As a teenager I listened to the Fugees, Boyz to Men, Goo Goo Dolls and Mariah Carey. I wanted badly to fit in with my peers and be “normal”.
Being an immigrant, I am not a stranger to racism and cliques. Despite living in Arab countries for most of my life, I blame my lack of knowledge of Arabic language mostly on the xenophobia of the Arabs in the gulf, especially for people of South Asia. But I also blame it on my family’s choice to educate me in private British Schools and not in Arabic schools. Their decision was probably influenced by their own worldviews and by the isolation of the immigrant communities in the Gulf by the locals.
All my knowledge of Islam and Muslim life is based on my family’s culture and traditions, my observation of other Muslims in my society, the media, random books and websites and the odd sermon here and there at a mosque or religious gathering in the 30 years of my life.
One would think that I should have by now completely forsaken the religion I was born in to. My Western education did not focus on any religion and my dreams for my life and my family’s dream for my life were not Islamic at all.
Yet here we are. The end result is a cynical Muslim at odds with herself.
I cling to my 5 daily prayers as if they are my only lifeline to something I have always admired and loved but never truly understood with the profundity that it deserves. I can still remember the feeling of the cold marble of the Haram Sharif under my feet and the smooth walls of the Kabaa. I remember the smell of the Itar people spray on the Hajaru-l-Aswad (Black Stone). The words of the Quran move me to my core and I am not one who is easily moved.
I studied Urdu (official Pakistani language) in school at least until grade 5, so I can understand the translation of the Quran in a language that is also beautiful and similar to Arabic in its profuseness and poetic quality.
The fashion I admire is not the one in the media and magazines, but in the beauty and comfort of the attire of real Muslim women. And as ugly as I feel in my Western garb, I just feel I cannot look as beautiful as them if I were to dress like them.
Something about my somewhat Islamic childhood experiences has left a mark on my thinking process. The way I evaluate and criticise my existence and my purpose. This conflict is the reason for my lack of identity. I know what I am meant to be, but I just keep picking and choosing from it things that fit in with my worldview, dreams and upbringing.
I am outside of every circle.
Allah (SWT) help me and all others in their journey towards Islam.