When I was younger people on occasion asked my mother if she had picked the wrong baby from the hospital. My round chubby face, light plain skin, blushed cheeks, silky hair and the eyes Â– kind of oriental eyes, the way Chinese eyes are. When I got older into my teens and still now people question if I am Arabic. Yet I didnÂ’t know what it was that could make me seem or look that way. There came a point where I questioned what my identity was?
When people look at you, what is it that you want them to see? What do you consider your identity to be? Your Religion? Your Culture? Your Gender? Your Nationality? Or is it Your Ethnicity? Your Occupation? Your Colour? Your Personality? Or then again it could be Your Looks? Your School? And Your Family? And if all, which one is first and which one last, finally?
At some points I found a deep connection and unity with others who had similar identities to mine. Yet I had no idea what a real identity was, can it be more than one thing or does it have to be just one thing? At other times I felt a distance and disconnection with other peopleÂ’s identities. I speculated if my inability to define my identity was having a negative effect on my life. As I mentored Muslim youths, some of these youths appeared to have similar feelings and views to mine.
Fixed Between Two Cultures!
I instituted that many Â‘ethnic minoritiesÂ’ established themselves fixed between two different types of cultures, usually the British culture and another culture of their own. Perhaps this was because of the different food, different clothes, different celebrations, different ways of speaking (different language), different attitudes, different motivations etc. Is this an abnormal thing or normal?
The place I have been born and brought up in has always been a mixed place with different ethnic groups, different people of colour, different religions and people with different social factors. Although oddly and usually at the same time, the people who reflect your identity will be those you are more likely to be with, e.g. at school I always see the same ethnic groups huddled together. This can be outside shops, on the streets generally, your work place or at your school/college/university. Your friends are more probable to have the same or similar identity to your own.
I looked for a very long time and frequently found myself speculating with whom I am and how others portray themselves to be. So I was determined to talk to my mentees on what they thought or believed their identity to be?
Under Which Category Are You? Â– Â‘Are You below Average?Â’
Some of them didnÂ’t seem to know who they really were or in what sort of position and category they belonged to be. Some said that they felt as though they were viewed as being Â‘below averageÂ’. So I asked them to tell me what comes to their mind when I say the word Â‘identityÂ’. These were the words they had listed for me: Religion, Personality, Ethnicity, Culture, Family, Nationality, Occupation, Gender, School, Colour, Country, Friends and Looks. I was proud of what they listed for me, especially because they had realised and were aware that they should know their identity and were interested to go thinking and questioning on it.
When I looked at those words, I thought to myself, Â‘how could all of these be put into one word - identityÂ’. Could identity be just one thing or could it be lots of things? My next step was to try and find out which one of these words from their list they thought was first in their identity and which one last. So I asked them to write down from the most important to the least important with a reason on why they thought that.
Since most of them already found themselves fixed between two types of cultures they suggested that culture could not be a fraction of the highest part of identity. So they put that aside as being the highest part of their identity. They tried to establish nationality which is British most of them but not all. Most of them questioned if they were actually British or other? Just because of being born and raised in a Western place or having to inherit the Western nationality, did that mean their ways have to be traditional western too? They claimed that they didnÂ’t feel British nor did they feel that they belonged under the British nationality. This was put aside too. Ethnicity - this was a difficult one. Some of them didnÂ’t know what to say about it. Some thought that ethnicity had the same views of culture that we had talked about previously. I found that the meaning of ethnicity is Â‘where someone belongs to a group that shares the same characteristics, such as country of origin, language, religion, ancestry and culture. Therefore ethnicity is a matter of biological and historical fact and is not changed by the culture in which a person grows upÂ’. When I mentioned this definition it put complexity into their ethnicity. Therefore they found it anomalous to put ethnicity as a first thing on their identity. Yet it is still part of the identity.
I found it odd on why some of them had put Â‘schoolÂ’ and Â‘friendsÂ’ down as being part of identity. When I asked why this was the reply: Â“ThatÂ’s because I spend more of my proper day time at school than anywhere else and because friends are part of school, it kind of puts the two togetherÂ”. When I asked the same about family, this was the reply: Â“Well I wouldnÂ’t put family as the highest part of my identity; even though they have similarities with my identityÂ…my time spent with them is less, sometimes not at allÂ”. I found that there were mostly personal reasons on why Â‘familyÂ’ wasnÂ’t put as the first thing on their identity list.
When it came to Â‘colour and looksÂ’ many of the youths had various opinions. Some said that it was highly important and when someone looks at you they always look at you by your skin colour or the way you look. One of the boys said this: Â“I know colour is an important thing in peopleÂ’s minds, yet people wonÂ’t show it because they are afraid of racial offenses. But come onÂ…everyone probably has a racial side to themselves where they might think negatively or positively towards someoneÂ’s skin colourÂ…itÂ’s either in conscious or unconscious, but itÂ’s still there!Â” I asked a girl on why she thought that colour was important as she agreed, this was her reply: Â“Just from experience, like when filling out forms for jobs and that or other forms for like driving lessons or for a passport or whateverÂ…they always ask you for your ethnicity, and most likely when they ask you this they are going to be wanting to know your colour at the same time, you get me. Like if I go and tick a box on a forum saying that my ethnicity is African-CaribbeanÂ…obviousl y they are going know that IÂ’m black or if I go ticking a box saying that IÂ’m Pakistani then they are going to know that IÂ’m brownÂ”. Even though they all found that colour was important, they didnÂ’t think it was important enough to be put as the highest form of identity because they found that it was just a social factor, not something inside them.
Gender also had its resemblance; all of them thought it was important just as colour is important. However some of them thought that gender isnÂ’t as important as it used to be in the old times. I asked why and this was the reply: Â“Gender was more important back in the days, same with age reallyÂ…like with women, they werenÂ’t really allowed jobs, not proper jobs anyway, and most of them were just housewives. Plus even in schools girls and boys had separate subjects taught to them, like the males were more likely to go on and do wood work (D.T) or sports or I.T, like technical stuff. And the females went and did textiles, like sewing and that or they learnt about doing the washing upÂ…actually this still happens in todayÂ’s world, in this school. But there is some equality nowÂ…mostly because the law has changed in the past decadeÂ”.
Finally we came to our final identity part Â– Religion. All of them had told me that religion was definitely part of their identity and I could see certainty in all of their eyes. I asked why they were so sure that religion was part of their identity. No one said anything. Instead most of them lost eye contact with me and looked away or just stared at the ground or fiddled with their hands. I paused for a while thinking that maybe they need to think and that I needed to give them some space. After a minute or two I asked again and one of the girls said: Â“I donÂ’t knowÂ…just because itÂ’s a way of living initÂ”. At this point I could tell that they had lots of opinions and views in their mind but yet none of them were telling me clearly. Were them embarrassed, uncomfortable or shy of their views?
Consequently I was pushed to pick on one of them. When I asked one of the girls who kept making eye contact with me on why she thought that religion was surely part of the identity, this was her reply after a short while: Â“To meÂ…wellÂ…religion is just a way of living. Islam is like ermm all around. Like itÂ’s in my heart and mind, everything that is done is done so in an Islamic wayÂ”. I asked her to expand a little bit more on how everything is done accordingly to Islam. She replied with this: Â“Like when you eat, you eat the way Islam has told you to eat, when you go to sleep, when you wake up, when you leave the house, when you enter the house, when you look in the mirror, when you leave for a journeyÂ…Â” One of the boys stopped her from talking and carried it on for her. Â“Yeah yeah, like just everything you do is done the way Islam tells you to do it init. Like even walking up the stairs and coming down the stairs we gotta say a prayer, before drinking water we recite a small prayerÂ…even when sneezing or yawningÂ…there are many thing. So Islam is like part of everyday life and like she just said itÂ’s in the heart and mind. And if itÂ’s like that then it canÂ’t be taken out no matter what. ItÂ’s like tattooed to the body, you get me!Â”
Once the two of them had given their views on why religion was 100% part of the identity, more of them had started to include their views into it. At this point I felt that they felt comforted by having this discussion, like most of them had so many views in their mind but it was blinded out because no one had asked them or talked about religion with them. After we had discussed the importance of religion and why it was put as their identity I asked why some of them looked like they were unwilling to answer when I had brought up the questions on religion, this is what one of the boy said without hesitation: Â“You know like this worldÂ…it pulls you down sometimes, especially on who you are. Like IÂ’m Muslim but like from what the media has injected into everyoneÂ’s mind these days makes me feel bad for who I amÂ…a littleÂ”. I found that most of them had the same feelings and views and they had said that society has changed over time. Before I spoke one of the girls said this: Â“Just because society and the world has changed and just because the media portrays Muslims as bad most of the time, that doesnÂ’t mean that Islam has changed and that we got to go believing in the crap that the media puts out to usÂ…stupidly people go looking at Muslims instead of looking at Islam! ReallyÂ” The other members were quiet surprised with what this girl had just said, and so was I quiet surprised honestly. Although most of all I was proud of them all and had got them thinking about their identity, including religion. I suggested that some of them needed time and lots of thinking to do. So I left it to that.
What your identity holds first?
Two days later I met up with the group again and asked the final question on what they supposed that their identity held first, all of them replied with Â‘religionÂ’ and Â‘IslamÂ’. Some of them even said that nothing else was held in their identity and it was just Islam!
We had our final discussion on identity and Islam and there were many views yet to come from these youths so I let them discuss and talk about it more. All of them had clearly stated that everything else in their identity had some conflicts and splits. However Islam united them all together and there werenÂ’t any conflicts to be seen.
Â“Do not divided among yourselves. And remember Allah's favor on you, for you were enemies and He joined your hearts together, so that by His Grace, you became brethren (in Islamic Faith), and you were on the brink of a Pit of Fire, and He saved you from it. Thus Allah makes His Ayat (proofs, evidences, verses, lessons, signs, revelations, etc.,) clear to you, that you may be guided."
"And be not as those who divided and differed among themselves after the clear proofs had come to them. It is they for whom there is an awful torment." (Surah Aal-Imran, Verse 103 and 105)
Written By Neelam Ahmed
"Be not afraid of growing slowly, be afraid only of standing still"
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