Misc. · Personal · Prattles

Self-Identity Struggle of a South-Asian Muslim Girl

**Please note: this is quite a lengthy post, but it’s very honest and sincere. It’s not meant to offend anyone in any shape, form, etc. It’s a personal account, nothing more and nothing less.**

Ciao my fellow book dragons! Today is Wednesday, and while I know I am supposed to be posting something relating to terrible sci-fi covers from the 80s, I decided to focus on something spectacularly different in its stead. As many of my followers know, I am a member of the Diverse Book Bloggers community; a community that promotes and embraces differences in literature and publishing from race, ethnicity, faith, sexual orientation, and many other facets. It’s an extremely important community for me, and I embrace all of the colourful brilliance that I have encountered because of it, however. This movement has made me realize, and thus forced me to recognize, my own conflict of culture and religion. I have had many inner contemplations within the past few weeks pertaining to my identity-crisis experiences.

Who am I? What am I? What do I want to be?

As I expand my reading repertoire and knowledge of the world’s many creatures, customs, and creativities, I have learned that these are excruciatingly important questions that I can’t run away from anymore. So… today, on this disgustingly hot Wednesday afternoon in California’s capital city, I’m going to sit at this overcrowded computer desk and discuss what it means to be a first-generation Indian woman who is struggling with her religious identity. Writing (for me) has always been the best means of facing a problem and finding solutions for said problems. Identity has been a large issue for me for the vast majority of my life, but I am an adult now. I am someone who is planning on starting and raising a family of my own within a few years. How am I to help my children understand who they are if I’m too chicken-shit to find my own self?

One of the reasons that I decided to share this with all of you is because I know that I am not alone with my struggles. I’m not egotistical enough to believe, or accept, that there aren’t other people out there (especially women) struggling with this same kind of conflict. If this TL;DR ramble can help even one person than it will mean everything to me.

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My parents came to America from Fiji Islands. Ethnically we are all South Asian (Indian) Muslims. Their great-great-greats moved to Fiji many, many years ago and then in 1989 my parents fled Fiji during a violent, political nightmare to the States where they hoped to raise their only daughter in a safer environment. Residing in a country where the language is difficult to learn and comprehend, where the culture and routines of life are so painfully different than what you’ve known your whole existence will instil a fear within you that is so profound, it can be crippling. My parents were terrified of living in a foreign country. With the exception of my maternal grandparents, the rest of the family could not care less what ill-fate could befall my parents. Essentially they were all on their own.

They worked their asses off to build a home here. My dad worked two, sometimes even three jobs, when I was child to make sure that our family had everything they needed—a roof, clothes, food, toys for his baby girl. My mom also worked really hard. She improved her English, went to college to study typing, and then eventually found her way to a stable career in the banking world. While struggling to build this life was an important concern, their largest concern was raising me.

Like quite a many foreign parents, mine were frightened for me as I grew older. They were scared of all of the crimes that every parent fears—kidnappings, murder, rape, etc.—but they also feared that I would grow up without an understanding or appreciation for my culture. As a child, I was immersed in lessons on religion with my grandparents, and required to learn multiple languages by my mum and dad.

I fucking hated it.

Having to learn Hindi, Urdu, and English simultaneously was a pain in my ass. My mom wanted me to learn Hindi and Urdu so that I could communicate with my family; grandparents who didn’t speak English in the US and family back home in Fiji. The English was supposed to help me feel less insecure about being different. It was supposed to help me fit in with this uncomfortable world, so that I wouldn’t have to face the same difficulties that they did. But it was still damn difficult, and I always believed it did contribute to my not making friends easily. I felt that my improper English made me appear stupid, so I worked super hard to show everyone that I was smart, really smart, however. As I grew older and went from one grade to the next, I came to the startling realization that my inability to speak an accent-free English wasn’t the issue. The issue was that I didn’t look like any of them, and I had studied so hard that I was multiple grades ahead of them in intelligence, and I was hated and ridiculed for it. This is where it all changed for me.

I stopped complaining about having to learn about my culture, my religion, and different languages. I read a lot of books, as many books as I could muster, but I also stopped turning in my homework. I got so sick and tired of being ridiculed for being an outsider that I wanted to be stupid just like all of them. I’d bring my homework home, complete it all, and leave it on my desk. I would watch television in the evenings learning to mimic the “proper” American English so that I could hide my own accent. I began hiding my accent halfway through sixth grade, and still conceal it when I’m in the company of people whom I don’t trust to be myself around. Note that even though I’m Indian, my parents were raised with British English. The English I learned growing up was British English with full British pronunciations and all. So… I’m brown with a strong British accent living in a place that’s obviously not Britain, without any background of British residence. The insults came in floods.

This turned into a huge problem for my parents, but eventually they found solutions that worked for both of us. One of them was home-school when I hit high school. My mom wanted me to go to a public school. She didn’t want me to miss out on anything that I might regret later, but of course I didn’t want to deal with the humiliation of being “different” anymore.

In most cases, experiences such as these make children hate their outward appearances. It makes them hate the fact that their skin colour is different, but it had the opposite effect on me. It made me hate being anything but. Even if I encountered a white person that was nice to me, automatically my brain would just bring up the bullying and I’d ignore them. Why would I want to be like someone who can be so shitty to another human being? It was a very jaded and arrogant way to think, but it was there. The only element of my persona that I was embarrassed of was my natural accent. I continued to hide my accent through the years. Today I only share my accent with my parents (if I choose to speak English around them) and my housemate. With support and encouragement from my housemate, I have started being wholly myself in the YouTube videos I create, but that is still awkward for me.

the-history-of-islam-3-volume-hardcover-set-akbar-shah-najeebabadi-1During home-schooling I read quite a bit about Islam and the history of the religion. I would pray with my father, go to mosque, and listen to him as he taught me about our culture as it relates to Islamic faith. I remember watching my grandfather give the adhan and I would feel so captivated by the power and beauty in his voice. Seeing him read from the Qur’an always provided a similar feeling. Nonetheless, I wholeheartedly accepted my Indian heritage, yet I just could not connect with Islam as my religion. Because I was forced to learn about it, because I was told that this is what I needed to believe in… Well, I couldn’t. There was no spiritual connection for me with this faith and it made me feel like a really shitty person.

After years of feeling like an outsider at school, I was starting to garner the same sort of negativity in my own home. To combat these ill-thoughts, I sought different avenues of understanding. Secretly, I began studying other Asian religions. I wanted to understand what made Islam different from Hinduism, Buddhism, Shinto, even Jainism. Unfortunately, I was never able to truly go out there and buy literature to make my own discoveries. Everything was left to the internet, which at the time was still rather limited. I was terrified of the backlash I would receive for thinking about any other religion aside from Islam. I grew to be resentful and as time went by I wanted nothing to do with.

Due to the conservative nature of my home, I was also never allowed to truly experiment with crazy things that adolescents usually do. Nope, I’m not talking about sex or drugs, but being able to dye my hair crazy colours, or try out funky outfit choices—wearing all black, fun band t-shirts, etc. All of this led up at a fierce rebellious phase when I hit 18. In an effort to expel all of the resentment and rage I had bottled up within myself for so many long years as well as the conflict of my identity, I behaved in ways that I still consider to be the worst of my existence thus far. I participated in a campaign of severe disrespect towards parents that I had come to see as tyrants and tormentors, instead of concerned and passionate for a child’s well-being. Most kids hit this era of delinquency in early to mid-teens. Mine smacked me in the ass into early adulthood.

08I became infatuated with a white boy, whose only appeal to me was the fact that my parents hated him. He had no family values, or respect for authority. He was all about having fun and being young. A tug-of-war for my welfare had ensued between him and my parents. Wielding my immaturity and blind, adolescent arrogance like a bastard sword I sacrificed my parents and married him. We were married for eight and a half long years; almost a decade. In the span of this near-decade, I had unwillingly sacrificed my culture, my beliefs, and everything that I was once so proud of. A mutation had occurred transforming me from a prideful, intelligent woman to a dirty dishtowel to be used, abused, and degraded. Little did I know that I would soon learn my lesson of disloyalty in a heart achingly dangerous way.

I sought out a psychologist to help me with my new-found emotional conflicts, as well as a partner to help me combat the war of depression that had engulfed me. During treatment, I was diagnosed with a number of mental health illnesses. Out of all of them, only two came from my childhood. Everything else was a consequence of my environment and the abuse that I was undergoing. Slowly, with lots of patience, my psychologist and a very good friend began helping to rehabilitate me.

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During this period, I became determined to find myself. I was sick and tired of feeling sorry for myself and I was even angrier about the fact that I was losing my culture and my heritage; elements that I prided myself on. Finally, out on my own, I purchased books on Buddhism and Hinduism. I read as much as I could about folks in similar situations where they experienced inner conflict with Islam and the rest of the world. For the very first time in my entire life, in 2013, loneliness did not touch me. I knew that I was not alone in my fears and insecurity as a lost Muslim girl in a foreign world. It gave me comfort and more determination to figure all of this out. However, I found myself utterly crippled again in 2014.

My husband had done something irreparable to our relationship. After months and months of manipulation, weeks of being psychologically raped he broke me as human being. I honestly believed that I had felt my soul being yanked out of my body. All of the progress that I had made in therapy had life-threateningly regressed. In fact, I was in a position that was about five times worse than when I began treatment. Feeling like the lowliest, dirtiest, most blemished piece of shit in the whole world, I tried to kill myself. In the fog that came with the act, I had flashbacks of my childhood. Black and white pictures of my humiliation for being different, being insulted by people who chose not to understand my differences, all of the pointing fingers and smug faces—completely engulfed my mind. I thought I was going to go insane, literally… and I had never been more afraid of anything else than I was in that one moment.

Everything that I had hated about them—the disrespect of differences, of family values, belittling for the sake of pride—I had done it all, and all to myself. Disgust and guilt made me realize this was Allah’s way of punishing me. Embracing everything that had happened with pity, I crawled out of my shit-pit and was determined to stop feeling this way.

My husband and I split up. I moved out with one of the greatest human beings I have ever met and I fought. A clarification before I go on: I would not be here without this person’s support and belief in me. He changed my life.

Out on my absolutely own for the first time in life, I sat down and made a mental list of everything that was important to me. With a mug of hot chocolate, which is the best beverage in the world, I compiled a list of everything that I had lost, everything I needed in my life, and every fucking thing that mattered to me enough to work hard to keep in my life.

Suffice to say that my parents were #1 on said list. My cultural identity came second, then as follows: re-build relationships with my best friends, find a career that’s all for me and no one else, find a place for faith in my life if I genuinely feel that I want it to be there, make my kitties the happiest kitties in the world, and never stop being who I am for anyone, ever.

Being terrified of seeking out my parents turned out to be a waste of time. As soon as I sat down and had a deeply emotional heart-to-heart with my mum, everything else just fell into place. They were waiting for me all of these years. On some level, even though they were hurting so badly, they knew that whatever happened to me needed to happen so that I would grow the fuck up. We came back together and recently celebrated one of the best Eid holidays we have ever had together. My relationship with them stands on honesty, integrity, and loyalty. My parents mean everything to me and I’ll be damned if I ever allow anything to interfere with this amazing warmth of family every again. Being around them again and so consistently brought to light the fact that they were always doing what they believed to be best for me.

They weren’t these “tyrants” that I had believed them to be. Yes, they were over-protective, but after being around my ex-hubs who had parents that never gave a damn, over-protective seemed like paradise to me. As an adult, I was able to see things through Parent-Coloured glasses:  human beings who did the best they could with the tools around them, working damn hard in a society that is psychologically cruel to people like them; people who left comfort and familiarity for alien and horrifyingly different to give their only child a shot at life, probably her only shot. I owned up to my shitty behaviour and promised to never disrespect them in such an atrocious fashion again.

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After that, everything else on my list was a matter of being good to myself first. I sought treatment for my PTSD, my anxiety and panic disorders, as well some severe psychological behavioural responses that come from being abused. While all of these elements still kick up every once in a while, I am now in control. I do not let these terrors control me any longer. It was, and still is, agonizingly problematic to work through embracing myself as a foreigner. After years of being told to “Westernize” and “Americanize” myself since “I’m no longer in Fiji or India,” creates some profound inabilities to do things like watch Bollywood, listen to Indian music, dress in Indian and Islamic attires, even visit mosque. Re-learning to be Indian began feeling as strange to me speaking German. Where do I even begin? Watching Indian films left an awkward taste in my mouth as I literally lost some of my ability to speak Hindi fluently and properly. Listening to Hindi music was also really weird as I was unfamiliar with so many new trends in the industry. The only thing that appealed comfortably to me were the clothes, but they’re so damn pricey all I could do was stare at them like a hungry kitten. Even though it was all so bloody outlandish, I kept doing it. I watched the movies, I listened to the music, I learned the words to get my Hindi back, and I created a Pinterest so I could stare at the clothes in a more OCD fashion. My extra-terrestrial shell cracked and after a few months it shattered completely.

I am an Indian-Fijian woman who couldn’t be more proud to be what I am. Brown skin is my cape, an oddly proper British accent my oxygen, and everything Indian my pride.

But what does that mean for me as a Muslim, or at the very least, the only daughter of an Islamic family?

To be perfectly frank, I don’t know the answer to this question yet. A long, mostly self-inflicted journey of suffering has allowed to me accept myself as an Indian in a society where being anything other than white is frowned upon, yet… No answer for the serious question of faith. One of things that I have discovered is that I do want faith. I want, I need some sort of faith in my life. It brings me calm, and motivation. When I was a child, I was so close minded to religion. I wanted to test the waters and see if by doing everything “sinful” if I would be punished or not. Maybe if I was aberrant enough, I could get Allah’s attention and He would be able to answer my questions Himself.

I was fucking dumb.

But it helped! It honestly helped me. As an adult, I have discovered that I do believe in Allah. I do believe in Him, sincerely, but I still don’t know if He is the path that I want to walk towards. Within the past few months I have been reading books on Jodo Shin Buddhism. This particular path of Buddhism originated in Japan and is more of a spiritual way of life rather than a religion. I feel connected to it and it fills me with a beautiful amount of peace. But I have also been educating myself with a mature and rational mind on Islam as well. All of the information I received as I child, I take that now and use it as I study in my adulthood. The result is the ever eluding answer for: what’s my faith?

After roughly 3,000 words of rambling, the question is the same, so… does that mean it was all a waste? Is this simply an essay of longwinded gibberish?

Absolutely not.

The point of my rambling is not by any means to tell you to be a religious person, or try and convince you to join a side. It most definitely is not about putting down white people either, or blaming my own bad tragedies on them (or blaming them for any of the other shit that I did). The entire point of this short-novel sized rant is tell you that it’s okay to not know. It’s also okay to fuck up, to make mistakes especially when you are trying to figure yourself out, find out your place in this vast and usually unfair world. Your mistakes are lessons. If you can learn from them and grow from them, then they have relevance. When we struggle with ourselves, the battle involves trying to please so many people around you—parents, teachers, friends, etc.—but the only person that you should ever please is yourself, especially where religion is concerned. Faith is a profoundly personal and intimate thing. You can’t be told to believe in this or that. You can only feel what is right for you. Learning this and accepting this is was one of the most difficult lessons I have ever had to learn in my life. Yes, I battle between Islam and Buddhism, but it is MY battle, for what is right for ME. This applies to anything else you may be fighting with in your life.

It’s okay to be fucking different because your differences make you unique and beautiful and astounding, and it’s okay to not know who you are all the time.

Another point of my never-ending scroll of infinity is to tell you that not everyone is the same person. My dreadful experiences as an Indian girl in the public school system, being horridly bullied and humiliated by all of the white kids at my school, doesn’t mean that every white person is a racist, disrespectful piece of shit. My ex-husband with his “white-wash-her-out” attitude is not every white man in existence. While I may not have met that many, I strongly believe there are people out there who will treat you like a human being because that’s what you are first and foremost. With Diversity turning into a large-scale movement around the world in many areas (books, movies, music), it’s important to recognize that even as diverse people, we don’t have to hate or spread hate simply because we have experiences filled with hate. Diversity starts with recognizing and accepting that everyone, even people who stem from our oppressors, are people at the end of the day.

Remember that awesome house-mate I mentioned above? He is a white Christian pastor. A white Christian pastor who has helped me accept myself as an Indian bisexual woman with an Islamic background, someone who is helping me find myself every step of the way. He doesn’t care if I’m brown or purple, Muslim or Jewish. All he sees is a girl with a bad mouth and a love for books and cats. That’s how it should be.

An identity crisis is something you will encounter as you live one day at a time. Questions about who you are, and what you want to be will always arise, especially from people who just want to be dicks to you because you’re different. Find parts of you that you love and wear it like skin, mould it into yourself so even when they try to rip you down, you know you’ll never falter. My past has made me stronger, instilling in me a fortitude that I never thought I deserved to have, but you know what? Fuck that. I deserve what I choose that I deserve. ♥

WP_20131122_02120131122204235I still have my conflict with faith, but at least now I’m more open-minded about what faith means to me as an individual, and that’s all that I need to move forward. I shall continue to educate myself, starting with Islamic literature. I’ve been afraid to read Islamic literature because I’m afraid of the guilt that will arise with the atmosphere, but I have to face my fears and insecurities so I can become even more tenacious, unstoppable even.

If you’ve read this entire long-ass fucking essay, then I applaud you and bow to you thankfully with such sincerity and appreciation. If this can help anyone out there, then I’m glad and grateful. I promise, the next post will be fun and only one-fourth this length (if that).

Love to all,

Neha

12 thoughts on “Self-Identity Struggle of a South-Asian Muslim Girl

  1. This is really an awesome post, you bared your soul in a way most people can’t and I think that is really cool. This will hopefully help others who are dealing with a lot of the same situations. You are an awesome person 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What a brave post! It touched me so much. To be honest, when I got to the bit about your parents and you reuniting I teared up. I’m so happy for you. You’re a brave, strong individual. In regards to religion, I’m in the same boat – not with the same religion, but I’ve been struggling with a faith that was instilled in me during childhood, but I’ve been too scared to fully explore that doubt. I’ve been “meaning” to read more about it so that I can educate myself, and begin the process of (re)discovery. Might take a leaf out of your book and actually do it. But anyways, I wish you the very best on your journey of faith. ❤

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your kind words. I’m still scared at times while I educate and explore my doubts, but it’s also helped me become more humble and understanding of others with varying faiths. 😊 I wish you all the best as well!

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  3. What an incredibly powerful and moving essay. I am in awe of your bravery and resilience. So much here resonates with me, as an American girl whose family is from a very strong, non-Western cultural background. Thank you for sharing so much of yourself. The parts where you talk about how strange it feels to reclaim parts of your cultural identity REALLY echo my own experiences & I’m glad it’s not just me who feels awkward and weird & it’s okay to feel this way. For example, I cannot speak the language of my heritage, and I’ve been terrified to honestly try because my American accent marks me, makes me feel like an outsider even in my own culture. But it is such an important piece of me that is missing.

    This quote: “it’s important to recognize that even as diverse people, we don’t have to hate or spread hate simply because we have experiences filled with hate. ” << something I will definitely keep in mind. Well said and very important. Sometimes the weight of hatred senselessly levelled at those of us that don't fit the norm can be overwhelming & cause us to feel resentment and hate back, but it is so important to not give in to that feeling.

    Thank you for this piece!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much. I’m a bit at a loss for words to your kindness. This has been a story that I have wanted to share for a long time, but never felt ready to share. Then I realized that I’ll never truly be ready to expose it all in such a fashion. I just had to take the plunge and hope for the best. Being able to show others that they’re not alone with their doubts and fears, and to share that it really is okay to have that doubt and be scared was vital for me as an individual. If someone, anyone, would have said these things to me as a child, it would have a world of difference. If you would ever like to chat about anything–doubts, struggles, etc.–please feel free to hit me up. 😊

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  4. This is a beautiful, strong, honest post. It takes immense courage to be so open about one’s struggles and I applaud you for it. I’m sorry you had to go through what you have. Hugs! Your struggle with identity and faith is a mirror to every young person of color. These are never easy questions to answer, and possibly they have no definite answers–it is the journey that matters and you have travelled with grace and strength. Wish you the best!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Gave me goosebumps to read this!!! It is so gutsy of you to share this. I am so glad you got through all of it and came out of everything a stronger and better person!!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I’m in awe of you and your strength and bravery to come out on top and share your struggle with us!💜✊ Thank you so much and consider yourself hugged tight!! Glad you found a wonderful person to support you and reunited with your parents. I hope you’ll find your place with regard to faith and spirituality. I think a lot of people struggle with this, especially those straddling cultures and hopefully they’ll find their way here and find strength in your words! My dad is Muslim only culturally and so I grew up in an Atheist household and am very happy with that. But I also didn’t learn Urdu or anything about Pakistani culture so I’m like any other German woman except I’m brown. So I feel a bit cheated and disconnected at times because people make me feel I should be more different but I can never embrace it because I am a stranger to my dad’s culture. Sometimes it’s a weird place to exist in.

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