Every classroom has a monitor. They act like a legislator, police and the court.
I have never been a monitor my entire life. I am the one who felt comfortable being in the shadows. You also must be wondering why I am talking about monitors – it is because I faced my first religious discrimination from one of them.
At one time, my desk partner and I were fighting over a pencil or a pen – I can’t recall exactly. Upon seeing us in conflict, our monitor walked up to us to help us solve our problem. She asked us to draw a line in the middle of our shared desk space and demarcate my side as ‘Pakistan’ and his side as ‘India’. And suddenly, in that moment, making tri-colour flags on Independence Day and running around with it, priding over the Gurkha soldiers, watching the prime minister’s address in our almost dysfunctional TV – all of it seemed like something I wasn’t entitled to do.
This was the first time I felt that I was different or unusual from others, that I did not belong; even though I spoke the same language as them, looked similar to them, ate the same food, and wore the same clothes.
Growing up as an Indian-Nepali already has its own share of complications. We are neither fully accepted as Indians nor as Nepalese. Now add Muslim to the already dilapidated identity and you can see my life unfold into a whirlwind of explanation, denial, confusion and hurt.
Islam is not a race, nor is it an ethnicity, but how would people living in a small Himalayan town possibly know that? This is how I would try to justify their behaviour whenever they would call me ‘Bin-Laden’, ‘Pakistani’, ‘Musalmanni’. And back then, I didn’t even realise that I was being bullied.
I was the only Muslim girl in my class and all these incidences and experiences impacted my self-confidence tremendously. I saw my Muslim identity as something undesirable and began distancing myself from religion altogether.
But how can a girl whose name sounds so foreign in midst of every ‘Pooja’, ‘Riya’, ‘Swetha’, ‘Neha’, possibly hide her identity? My name echoed every inch of my religion, something I was trying to run away from.
My self-confidence hit rock-bottom by the time I started college. I remembering having a nervous breakdown when I had to do a presentation in front of my entire class. Years of suppression, years of not speaking up, years of fear had acquired a good hold of me. But these small challenges, coupled with some really good friends, helped me heal. For the first time, people saw me as an individual rather than as a race or a religion, and more importantly, I was not the only Muslim girl in my class, there were others too, all so very kind and talented.
Surprisingly, the Muslim community from whom I was trying to alienate myself for years were most welcoming and helpful, and finally began to see what my religion was made of – kindness, peace, and love. I wasn’t judged for looking different and it finally felt like I belonged somewhere. The journey back to Islam has been so enriching and rewarding, but it has at the same time made me appreciate my mixed cultural, religious, and ethnic heritage.
I still proudly speak Nepali at home and eat momos for dinner, rejoice the occasional biryani and haleem made by my mother, and drool over aloo paranthas and kadhai chicken at restaurants and dhabas, and speak fluent Hindi and English. However, there are still second glances from people when I introduce myself as Zubeda Ali. People still say, “How can you be a Nepali?” or “but you don’t look like a Muslim” and there are others who derogatorily call me ‘Chinese’ and ‘chi***’.
Over the years I have come to realise that I am always going to be a misfit in the eyes of many people, but I’ve also learned that I don’t have to be accepted by everyone to find peace. I am a proud Muslim, a proud Indian, and a proud Nepali.
And no name calling, no bullying, and no amount of racism can take that away from me now.
A perfect world is not given, so for now I am trying to construct one with kindness, empathy and compassion.
Featured image credit: Taylor Leopold/Unsplash