Featured Illustration: Raúl Gil
At the beginning of the year, I read Fatima Farheen Mirza’s essay, Boxing. Mirza had taken an instant and unquestioned leap into my list of favorite authors after I read her book A Place For Us, a story that I keep coming back to in bits and snippets, and even though it has been two years, it still makes eyes well up and my heart clench. When I learned she’d written an essay for Granta magazine, I hurried to find it, and sat down with it, eager to assimilate every word she had penned.
What she wrote in that essay was an echo of what I had felt for years. I understand so profoundly why I love her writing so much — it puts into perspective my life as a twenty-first-century Muslim woman who grew up relatively conservatively. It’s like being seen and acknowledged, every emotion from joy and vast relief to inexplicable grief and silent rage, acknowledged and laid out before me, so tenderly that I could weep.
Mirza talks about her life growing up in a Muslim household, with her younger brothers and her cousins, detailing her role in the family and how things were mapped differently for her than they were for the boys. I found myself agreeing almost aggressively with everything, recognizing my own life shadowing her words, seeing myself placed in a world so similar that every word felt like a testimonial to my own life rather than the characters’.
I started reading when I was six, perhaps seven. I remember reading Enid Blyton’s novels — I especially loved the St. Clare’s and Malory Towers series. And as I grew into my preteen and teenage years, I came to love YA and fantasy, getting hooked on everything from J.K. Rowling and Rick Riordan to Sarah J. Maas and Maggie Stiefvater. I was so in love with what I read, that my attempts at writing were modeled after it. I never finished a single story, got as far ahead as twelve chapters or so before abandoning it. Somewhere along the line, my mind would realise that I was trying to write about things I knew nothing about, and trying to guess my way into a plot. It never worked.
And whenever my family got a hold of one of my manuscripts, it would be followed by weeks of teasing and ridicule — mainly for my characters. “Look, she’s named them John and Sally and Tom and Marianne again,” my brothers would tease, and my father would laugh, but I could still sense some disappointment. Later, he would ask why I always picked English names, why didn’t I write about Muslims? I never had an answer for that.
My friends and I did our best to listen to all the pop anthems we could, spending hours and hours obsessing over people we found ever so glamorous, and we wanted to be like them. That was the coolest thing we could be. Perfect-bodied, blue-eyed, fair-skinned, American-accented. We wanted to wear our hair like them, talk like them, sing in a band like them. My family jokes about my love for English, pokes fun by telling me that I like to pretend like I was left behind by the British. And perhaps my taste in music, or movies, or the books I read and the way I dress or think is more American, more British, more Western than theirs ever was.
I don’t regret it though, the many hours spent on the music and the reading — it shaped the preferences I have today, preferences and tastes that I’m fond of and proud of, preferences that feel so deeply mine that I would not separate them from me if I had the chance to do it all again.
But now, I understand how and why I wished for what I did. I saw people with names I had never encountered in my life doing things I wanted to do, and when I wrote my stories, I put down the same names I saw on the page or the screen. I couldn’t really imagine Ayesha and Zainab and Maryam traveling with their friends, driving late at night, dressing up for themed parties, or having sleepovers — those were things only Sarabeth and Jessica and Adriana could do. I was whitewashed, perhaps, but that was my truth.
In Boxing, Mirza writes, “It is impossible to know what it would have been like, or who I would have been, had I grown up seeing girls like me on the TV. But there were no Muslim women among the teenagers I watched on TV shows and none in the books I was reading. No hijabi musicians, news anchors, athletes, or actors — we were nowhere. There were no examples of possible lives I might imagine for myself. I was in the world, watching others participate in it, but the world itself, I felt, was unaware of, or indifferent to, a girl like me.” Like Mirza, I yearned for something I didn’t know. I wanted to see girls like me in the stories I took in so hungrily, wanted their lives to be as big as those of any white girl. All I really wanted then, and what I really want now, is to see girls with names like mine and skin like mine and accents like mine, sailing ships across oceans and walking through the cobbled streets of a city far away from home, ruling kingdoms and slaying my enemies with magical swords. As woman as any and all other women.
When I see how the YA landscape has changed now, it is bittersweet. Seeing more Muslim writers coming out of the woodwork and writing the books I wished I had read moves me, awes me and excites me, but I am also profoundly sad — where were these people when I was growing up?
Why did no one tell me I didn’t need to be someone else to feel like I had a place in the world, a place that I actually wanted? I found the empathy I was looking for in white girls; they felt the same things I did, had the adventures that thrilled me, went to places I dreamed of, were liked by boys I wanted to be liked by. I wanted to be like them — be them, and hearing those stories, I knew I was like them. Our hearts were the same — but I was nowhere to be found.
In a way, it drove home the idea that people are similar and want pretty much the same things, that age and gender and ethnicity and background are all just social filters. These white teenagers laughed and fought and loved in ways I recognized. Always I felt like they got it, they understood, they just lived differently. It’s painful to look back now and realize that I simply thought of freedom as something white kids had. Some part of me denied it even then, but I just knew. I couldn’t write a story about a warrior princess or a rebel leader with my name and not invite statements of my head being turned by Western media. Now, I wish I had. I was getting those statements anyway. Not having done that back then only ever made me feel like being my own cheerleader wasn’t enough, and that I wouldn’t get anywhere if I didn’t fit into a recognizable box.
Today I see Muslim women, hijabi women, from the POC community, reaching for so much more than they ever had growing up. They have learned that the white, blond, blue-eyed European need not be the default. There are spaces that we want to be in that will have us, never mind what we believed as children. We need not be only wives and mothers and daughters, or at the best stretch, doctors, and teachers — we can be physicists and artists, archaeologists and journalists, activists and CEOs, dragon-slayers and mages and magical healers — if only we lift each other up that way. Every young girl deserves to dream of a world where she herself can be the protagonist, and decide for herself what that world needs to be. Where she does not look to social norms, or some Eurocentric or any-centric standard of what her dreams need to be; where she lives life as a human, as a woman, and becomes someone who lifts her sisters up so that they can rise together.