Bridges not Barriers


As I stood on the corner of my street, I waited tentatively for my bus to arrive. It was the day after Eidthe day which marks the end of Ramzan, and my hands were adorned with mehndi. Intricate patterns of flowers, leaves, and branches covered my palms; kaleidoscope-like designs were displayed on my fingers tips. Chaand raat was always my favourite part of Ramzan primarily because of this special practice. I loved the feeling of mehndi as it was applied to my hands and would wait hours to remove the dried-up dye to ensure the colour had properly developed. At Eid parties I would place my hands in such a way so others could also admire the detailed work. However, I knew that once I took my seat on the bus these warm feelings would disappear. Soon I would have to respond to comments and inquiries about my mehndi from my classmates.

Growing up, my apprehensiveness in sharing aspects of my culture stemmed from instances of feeling 'othered' by those around me. I remember the sense of dread that would wash over me when teachers took attendance on the first day of school. As one of the few Pakistani-American students, I understood that most people were unfamiliar with my name and the need to pronounce it multiple times. But on more than one occasion I saw teachers alter the spelling on their class rosters. To me, this demonstrated that both the look and sound were too different and foreign to their eyes and ears. Language was also an area that separated me from my peers. When I would share that I spoke Urdu at home, fellow classmates were eager to ask how to say certain words in my language. A boy in my fourth-grade class found 'puppo' exceptionally funny and would not miss a chance to make crude jokes using this word. Because of this experience, I stayed quiet when the school nurse asked me what I had for breakfast after I got sick at school. I was unsure if omelet was a word in Urdu, and if it was, I did not want her to make fun of me.

As I got older, Pakistan became synonymous with the War on Terror and questions regarding my religious identity began to arise. People would ask how Muslim I was and, as a Muslim woman, these intrusive inquiries were not complete without elements of gendered stereotypes. When asked why I do not wear attire that others believed was appropriate for Muslim women (i.e. a hijab) I would say that I came from a more 'moderate' background than those expected to follow this dress code. Was I really more liberal than women who wore it?  And although faith isn’t measurable or quantifiable, I told people that I was Muslim but not too Muslim. I had to wonder, would mentioning that I practiced my religion make me look like a fundamentalist?

In answering these questions, I filled the role of 'cultural expert' for those around me, but I felt exhausted and confused.

I would ask myself, were my responses what I believed or were they constructed in a way to appease others?

In the hopes of navigating my 'identity crisis', I reached out to two people who also experienced feeling different than those around them: my parents. Because they migrated to the United States in the 80’s, I was certain that they could share some wisdom on how to deal with uncomfortable remarks and questions. Once, I told them that being Pakistani and Muslim in the United States was challenging and this led to a conversation on how they viewed both characteristics in relation to me. They pointed out that I could not read or write in Urdu and I occasionally visited Pakistan during summer vacation, therefore I was not Pakistani. For them it was simple: born in the U.S. + raised in the U.S = American. My parents were more sensitive when discussing religion and were empathetic to issues second-generation Muslim-Americans face, but the main point they got across was to remain silent if someone said anything negative about Islam.

Because of this advice and my experiences in school, I saw myself as one big contradiction. I believed I was both Pakistani and American, but others did not agree; I believed I was a Muslim, but I didn’t 'look' Muslim. I continued to harbour these feelings until I enrolled into university. That's where I found a home in the College of Liberal and Fine Arts and fell in love with Anthropology. Participating in class discussion on understanding human experiences and recognising diversity engaged me in an entirely new way of thinking. Learning about topics like intersectionality, diaspora, and gender performativity allowed me to apply these concepts in relation to my Identity. In doing so, I discovered that I can call myself a 'Musalmaan' even if I don’t fit mainstream perceptions of who is considered a Muslim woman. I can also say that I am both Pakistani and American even if older generations do not agree. Such qualities are central to who I am and how I express these aspects of self is up to me. But this awareness goes beyond my individual experience and is evident in campaigns led by South Asians. 

South Asian American’s Leading Together (SAALT) is a non-profit organisation that engages in advocacy and policy change regarding social justice issues affecting South Asians in the United States. Through its efforts, SAALT is able to address xenophobic rhetoric and hate crimes directed towards South Asians. The Unfair & Lovely campaign was started by black and desi women at the University of Texas at Austin. This movement confronts mainstream beauty standards and encourages South Asians to appreciate their skin colour. The Third Muslim is an upcoming curated series of events and a mixed-media exhibition curated by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto Jr. and Yas Ahmed. This show aims to provide a space for queer and trans Muslim artists. Such initiatives demonstrate a move towards greater visibility and discussion on subjects concerning South Asian communities.

Answering questions about my culture does not cause me to feel anxious or overwhelmed anymore. While I do not encourage unsolicited inquiries (e.g. “where are you really from?”), my background in anthropology has assisted me in creating a framework in which to navigate these situations. This journey in discovering who I am has also helped me become more comfortable with seemingly conflicting aspects of my identity.

Can I say that I am Muslim and not wear hijab? Yes. Can I say that I am both Pakistani and American? Of course.

The efforts of SAALT, the Unfair & Lovely campaign, and The Third Muslim recognise and support the need for South Asians to be able to choose their own identities as multi-faceted individuals. The very nature of these movements is to draw attention to the diversity that exists among South Asians. Now, I no longer see the hyphens among Pakistani-Muslim-American as barriers; separating aspects of my identity into distinct categories. Instead, I see them as bridges, allowing attributes to move freely between the various elements that characterise me as an individual. I hope other South Asians can also recognise the agency that lies in their identity.