Words Safiya A.
Digital Header Fatema A.
I grew up in a small town on the outskirts of Boston. I was one of a few Indian students and I was the only Muslim girl in my class. It was easy to get swept up in the western culture and lose a part of your identity. I dressed like my classmates, talked like them and acted like them. I would often try to hide my culture and customs from my friends. When the Azaan would go off on my parent’s computer at home, I would jump and run to switch it off. I wouldn’t tell my friends if I was going to the masjid but instead say I was meeting family. It was easier to make up excuses than try to explain myself. When I was 17 I met a boy, who would later become my husband; he was everything I feared to be or rather could not be. He was different to anyone else I had ever met – totally confident and comfortable with himself. If it was time for namaaz he didn’t care who was watching or what anyone thought, he would pray. He didn’t feel the need to tie or tame his dari and he wore his topi with pride.
When we got married, I decided to wear ridah. He supported me and while it was my decision, it was a tough decision to say the least. Often it was hard for him to understand my fears or my hesitation when going to a certain restaurant, or interacting with certain people. Having never worn it before, I let it hold me back. I let it make me timid and reserved which was a complete contrast to the once loud, pretty weird, outspoken girl I was in high school.
On my first day of university I thought to myself ‘what will people think of me when I walk into the lecture hall? Will they think I am just a conservative commoner, wearing it because I have been forced? Will I only be friends with other Muslims now? Will I make friends based on my personality or my appearance?’ The first few months of university were amazing; the pools of knowledge surrounding me and the students from varying backgrounds were endless. I made friends of all races and backgrounds, but I still felt different. I felt I couldn’t be without my ridah, because I would feel exposed, but I felt that it was masking my personality. I slowly replaced the traditional bright blues, greens, purples and pinks with dull browns, greys and blues. One day my fellow classmate said “Where have all the colours gone?” I shrugged my shoulders and explained how I just felt out of place wearing such bright colours in a sea of mostly blacks, greys and browns. He smiled at me and said “You always brighten up my day when I see you walk into class in your colourful dresses”.
That is when it clicked. Why was my ridah in my head dabbling with my thoughts rather than simply on my head? I let my ridah define me rather than me defining it. It was a slow process but it became my strength. It is my reminder of my culture, my roots and a reminder that I am unique. I fell into media driven stereotypes of Muslim women instead of breaking those stereotypes as a Muslim woman. I was only 18 at the time, why did I feel the need to adopt a culture that was not mine? This was my time to be unapologetically ME. I love walking into a meeting, a restaurant or a social event wearing my traditional dress and then opening my mouth for everyone to hear a loud American accent coming out of the traditionally draped Muslim woman. I love breaking someone’s preconceived, media-driven ideas of how a Muslim women should act or talk. My ridah makes me different and makes me memorable.
I still get the judgmental looks and comments from other Muslims or Indians who think I have not assimilated to western culture because I choose to wear my cultural hijab, but I was that girl once upon a time and that girl didn’t really know who she was.