In My Name- Part One
Every day when I wake up and look at myself in the mirror, I have a different belief in who I choose to be.
Some days, I wake up as a woman battling my anxieties, another day I wake up as a daughter worried about her parents, and many other days, I wake up as a Muslim.
It is not easy to equate my belief with an entire community of people I have yet to meet and know personally. All of us have our own individual paths towards understanding ourselves, many of them too diverse for the collective limited imagination. Yet, many times, I feel the burden of the community on my shoulders.
Over the years, being identified as a Muslim who also wears a headscarf has been challenging. In my preteen years, I battled with the obligation of wearing it. My family considered it to be a duty, an act of protection towards myself against the big, bad world. At that time I was still understanding God, and my faith was too raw to accept the symbolic gesture. I looked at it more like an order from the two people I loved the most. Being a cheerful child, I soon adapted to the muffled voices and the feeling of being enclosed in a piece of cloth as a necessary occurrence- my loved ones wore it, my seniors at school wore it, and currently, I was the only one in my class to wear it. The last thought made me feel a sense of pride.
There were times when I would see a friend wear it one day, and not wear it the next. This would tend to happen a lot before and after the month of fasting. Confusion would creep in, along with a sense of superior judgment of oneself. My conversations with my family would further make me place myself at the center of their praises as someone who never took her headscarf off. I was considered purer and dubbed an angel by my peers and teachers.
When I migrated to Kashmir, the practice of on-off, as we would call it, became much more common, and deeply distressed me. Having shifted to a co-ed school, my mind considered the presence of boys as a catalyst for Muslim girls wanting to show off their beauty and thus removing their headscarves. My family, in conversation with my relatives, confirmed the idea and dubbed our generation as “satanic”.
I felt the powerful duty of keeping myself safe from such boys, who I truly felt were out to manipulate me into their will. I believed the only way I could be safe and pure was to slowly acquaint myself with the idea of being a perfect Muslim- if I could show my fellow Muslim woman how easy it was to be one, all the boys would lose. I spent hours perfecting the art of praying, pored over tens of Islamic books practically emphasizing how to talk to boys in a manner that didn’t suggest ‘bad’ intentions, and fought verbal battles with boys I deemed to be morally disruptive. I would be the exception to this war, and I would never let any guy disrespect me.
Even while I harbored such emotions against boys, I still developed crushes, fantasized about eloping away, and felt left out of all he’s-my-boyfriend conversations. Internally, I oscillated between having similar experiences with my gender and rejecting those experiences altogether as a devout servant of God. The chaos was unexplainable to my family, who considered me to be going through puberty and teenage angst, and to my classmates- many of whom had trouble relating to my firm ethical stances on almost every issue.
My sister, who was going through a different internal upheaval herself in the battle between being Muslim or being a woman, meanwhile, felt a personal responsibility to educate me about words that weren’t being taught in school or in my social circle. She gave me a few of her graduation books on feminism and hope and urged me to read. As someone who wished to emulate her, I followed her advice.
She was right. Although I paid less attention to the books on feminism, one particular book by Fyodor Dostoevsky, “House of the Dead”, pierced through the questions I had about myself. It was a book detailing his experiences in jail in Serbia, and his growing understanding of human nature. The style of his writing and the simple manner of accepting endurance as a way of life resonated with my belief as a Muslim. I needed to endure, much more than I needed to crave attention.
It was during those quiet moments of pausing on his words and deliciously reflecting that I decided I wanted to understand human nature more. I realized that the internal crises I had been feeling had been my personal diamond to unearth. In terms of educational institutions, that meant pursuing graduation in psychology.
As I chose Humanities and Arts as a stream, that was the first external act of rebellion against what my parents expected. My father was flabbergasted at my hostility towards science, being a man who believed in science himself. My mother, who had been an Urdu teacher in her time, was more accepting of my position, as was my sister. Both supported me as I fought my first stance in the house.
Dostoevsky showed me that books had worlds of answers. I just needed to seek them out. In the last two years of my school, I decided to visit the library more often, while still harboring resentment towards myself for not being able to gel well with colleagues, and the added pressure of having a good future in psychology. The library was one place where I breathed easily. I read about lives more horrendous and lovelier than mine and I found similar internal conflicts between protagonists. The act of reading was also an act of superiority- I was different, more driven than my peers. I didn’t care about the nitty-gritties of love, I was involved in more important things.
However, I was still lonely. (To be continued.)