My family is liberal. We’re what you’d call “cool Muslims” – my brother and I attended elite co-ed schools, we wear clothes that show skin, we party, we don’t pray regularly, and the only time we’re ‘religious’ is during Ramzan. In fact, now I’m an atheist.
This wasn’t the case while growing up. There is a rite of passage for all Muslim kids, and I was no different. I had to learn to read the Quran, where an old Aapa would come home to teach me, I learnt how to read and write Urdu, I learnt the hadees, by-hearted surahs, memorised raqaats, learnt duas – learnt how to be a Muslim.
I was a big, big believer. I even prayed five times a day.
But I never spoke about any of this to my friends. No one knew this side of my life. Somewhere, it felt better to keep it hidden – this very ‘other’ kind of Muslim life.
I did speak about some things, though. Biriyani at weddings? Sure. New clothes for Eid? Yes. Iftar parties? Yep. But not the bits that made my ‘Muslimness’ so apparent.
I didn’t know why I did this. But now, when I look back, I realise what made me hide it.
It’s not the sort of shame that’s apparent, right there in front of you, stark naked and screaming to be clothed. It’s the kind of shame that’s insidious, that creeps up on you and before you know it, you’re covered in it head to toe.
It starts when you hear sly comments about how “backward” Bakri-Eid is; when you see it exchanged in snide smiles while an India-Pakistan match is on. And when India scores, people look to see your reaction. It’s there in the unctuous tone other kids’ parents would adopt when they spoke of how “harsh” fasting during the month os Ramzan was; in the nasty bullying where kids would make fun of Muslim boys for being circumcised. In little instances, I felt different, and not like everyone else around me.
So it just became a part of who I am to hide my ‘Muslimness’. I never shared how excited my family would be for Ramzan; of how my brother and I would sit together and count the hours for iftaari; of dreading Quran classes because the new Aapa was scary strict; of spending weekends at our Dadi’s house, where she would tell us quissas of Prophet Mohammed; of Eid namaz when the Imam would be in sajda too long and we’d be busy sneaking glances to see if someone next to us thinks it’s taking forever too; of watching a bakra‘s qurbani for the first time (it’s rough, not going to lie); of wearing the hijab for namaz and wondering if maybe I should start wearing it all the time; of speaking in Shivaji Nagar Urdu (if you know, you know); of going to Chickpet to shop for zakat for our staff; of looking at Pakistani actresses and yearning for their amazing lawn salwar suits.
I never shared any of this because I was ashamed to be ‘that’ Muslim. In trying to make others comfortable around me, I hid myself and my culture because I thought it wouldn’t be accepted. Was it because I could sense the latent bigotry around me? Maybe. Was it because I didn’t like bits of my Muslim self? I don’t know. I guess it was what it was.
But, not anymore. Funnily enough, at a time when I least believe in it, I feel the closest to my culture. Maybe it’s the political climate, the rise of hate against my community, or perhaps that I’ve learnt what to take from it, and what to reject – acceptable or not.
I see this happening across the board with other Muslim kids too. And there’s a danger in this. Pushed against a wall and people start turning inward. This isn’t conducive to a world that’s shrinking, where borders are disappearing, where people are coming together. I think it’s vital to understand that if we go up any religion far enough, it will do what religions do – isolate us from others.
What we need to do now is share our stories of celebration, of compassion, of kindness, of pragmatism borne out of our culture – we all have them. Tell our stories to those who are different from us and include them in it, make them a part of our lives, as we are a part of theirs – because then there won’t be an us and them. It’ll just be all of us, and all our stories.
Now, I’m proud to be that kind of Muslim.
A writer and brand consultant, Amina Khan lives and works in Bangalore. Just like everyone else, she’s trying to get by, one day at a time.
Featured image credit: mostafa meraji/Unsplash