More than ten years ago, an acquaintance asked me if I felt held back from being my “true self” because of the hijab. I was taken by complete surprise. I was a recent university graduate, working in government, confident and outspoken, following my dreams, or so I thought; so, I was confused as to what she saw as being my “true self”.
Now, I almost always give others the benefit of the doubt, especially when they clearly don’t know what the hell they’re talking about. I chalk it up to a lack of cultural exposure and awareness. Mind you, this was at the onset of social media, and hijabi bloggers and fashion gurus weren’t a mainstream thing yet. But we sure came.
So, I tell Susan* that I was ok with my sense of self and don’t feel I was ever held back. I kind of said it meekly. I mean, I knew as much as a twenty-something would know but maybe Susan saw something I didn’t. I know what you’re thinking – well, where’s that confident and outspoken woman? She was there, she truly was, but she was and still is Arab. Being Arab, and raised Arab, has a certain flavour to it – for guys and girls. How shall I put this…there are no boundaries and virtually no topics taboo enough not to be discussed – except inter-racial marriage and death. The former will lead to scandal, the latter will lead to actual realization. Then what will people say? I don’t know how. Allah only knows. Will we ever know? Inshallah.
Here I was, Arab-Canadian woman. The Arab in me saying: answer her, it’s ok, and don’t make her feel awkward; the Canadian in me saying: oh no she didn’t. It is hard, dude. And through stories and anecdotes, I want to be able to convey to you, the cluster-fuck of a ride young immigrants have had navigating who they are, especially, like me, the ones who come here as children and are expected to know and adhere to two worlds simultaneously. It royally sucks when you’re expected to choose sides. I want mom and dad dammit!
Ten years later, I’m not the same woman. I’ve learned to provide thought-out response to all sorts of ignorant fuckery. It comes with the territory. But, living part-time white as a brown-Arab in a Western culture, and raised by somewhat assimilated-but-confused-as-fuck parents and community, I realized something about people in general: we are all the same. Not in the kumbaya hippy sense, more like my white friends’ parents get just as annoyed as mine when we don’t clean our rooms. Wow! Sure Becky didn’t get the kitchen flip-flop thrown at her from across the living room for speaking back, but I’d like to think that built some character in me. And some mad dodging skills. I was so good at dodge ball. No joke. Thanks mama.
I once assumed people were different, and we are, but we also aren’t. The realization was somewhat depressing. I placed my adoptive culture to higher standards, especially as I saw how my Arab and Islamic heritage was depicted in the media.
Now, before you get a hernia, I’m not pan-Arab idealist. That idea is dead and long gone. I came to Canada as a kid. My biggest issues now are can poutine be eaten with shredded cheese (apparently that’s blasphemous) and bitching about the six months of winter (which happens every year and we conveniently forget). As for Islam, I’ve already been excommunicated, I’m positive. That’s neither here nor there. My point is, I found so many similarities between both of my cultures, and it was amazing, not surprising.
Human nature is human nature. Sure you always get the token crazy Mr. Smith and Abu Abdullah frothing at the mouth screaming: they haven’t assimilated enough! and they’ve lost their culture! I ignore the crazies. I’ve reached a point where I can comfortably say I’ve taken the best of two worlds and fused them. And while I was at it, I picked and chose other aspects of other cultures and saw the beauty and strength in being diverse. Diversity in thought, diversity in understanding, diversity in food. Emphasis on the food. I mean, come on, thousands and thousands of years, and we’re still repeating the same shit, just a different pile? Do we not learn? All rhetorical. I know our sad state of affairs, so I chose to at least take advantage of my hybrid nature – a result of this experiment we call multiculturalism and immigration.
Long story short. Susan, at the time, hadn’t met too many hijabis. She assumed I was oppressed. But, my male owner was kind enough to allow me an education and to work? I don’t know. I hope Susan is now in a better place culturally.
Be like Susan but don’t be like Susan. Be curious and know it’s ok not to know, just ask the right questions. Don’t assume. If you do, you’ll be like Susan in the bad sense, and also like my parents circa 1992, whose first introduction to Easter was eggs and bunnies in Zellers. They couldn’t understand why a country dedicated an entire holiday to rabbits. If it was the goose or beaverrr, make sense, but why rrrabbit? Roll those Rs like baba. Don’t worry, I broke the news about Easter a few years back. He still thinks it should be the Canadian goose or beaver. Inshallah.
*Names have been changed.