My stomach clenched. Surrounded by an unpleasant stench in the gym, I froze with fear as my physical education teacher informed us that the upcoming weeks would be spent learning the salsa dance. The goal of these lessons was to understand how to interact, albeit awkwardly, at formal dance events like prom.
As I stood there, I imagined my mom’s look of revulsion at the activities of an “Amerikan” school system and my dad’s expression, when he learned that I would be dancing with boys. I could imagine my mother expressing her discontent with the lack of modesty in public high schools in America and her “tut-tut” of disapproval at my private desire to be a part of these school events. Later, my thoughts reverted to how my peers would react if I mentioned that I wasn’t allowed to dance with boys because of my religion. Sighing, I mustered the courage to talk to my P.E. teacher about my problem with the lesson. I stuttered while telling him that, as a Muslim, I wasn’t allowed to have close physical interactions with boys, but I promised to watch and assured him that I would learn and practice these steps while I was in the comfort of my home. I ignored his disdain and feigned sympathy for me, as I proceeded to sit alone on the bench and observe my peers frolicking on the dance floor for the rest of the week. Throughout the week, I remained dismayed at the consistent friction between my Muslim and American identities. I longed to be a typical American high-school teenager–free and uninhibited.
Although this event wasn’t a defining part of my high school career, it served to elucidate the difficulty of maintaining the balance between the Muslim identity and the American one — a challenge that thousands of Muslim Americans struggle with today. Many Muslim Americans, especially the youth, are left with various conundrums to decipher on their own. Challenges range from peer pressure of “fitting into” the American society to identity conflicts and a sense of shame of the Muslim identity. I have witnessed several of my friends express their disdain and shame at being Muslim and some who feel that the rules are incessantly restricting, archaic, and complicated. Often what is allowed outside a Muslim home is haram or forbidden within the boundaries of the house, and it results in a deeper conflict that leaves several Muslims feeling alienated from American society. In other situations, many Muslim Americans forgo their Muslim identity in their hopes to fraternize easily and “fit into” Western society.
I vividly remember a conversation with a Muslim peer of mine at my high school while we ate lunch together. As she expressed her contempt for the Islamic attire and prohibition of dating, she indirectly mocked my concordance with the rules. Apparently, the hijab was too restrictive and demeaning to women. Dating should also be halal, and I should check out cuter boys in our community.
While I respected her opinions, I later found myself questioning her adamant disrespect of my beliefs and the reasons behind such vehement opposition. I realized the necessity of sharing my faith and beliefs with others, so that they viewed my differences as part of my faith and could understand and respect my ideals. I also began to consider the consistent tension between my Pakistani Muslim identity and my American one and understood the paramount importance of finding a happy medium. Perhaps, if my P.E. coach and gym class had been educated about the Muslim faith and the rationale behind my actions, I may not have felt as left out, and the situation may have been different. Later on in the year, I went and talked to my P.E. teacher telling him the deeper rationale behind not being allowed physical proximity to boys and assured him that if I had a brother, he wouldn’t be allowed to have such physical proximity to girls either. His features immediately softened. He had the misconception that Islam was demeaning to women as it restricted their freedom. Now, he understood that men were restricted by the same rules of modesty. I also told him about the fun I had dancing at home with my best friend and how much less awkward that situation was. He laughed. At that moment, I became determined to educate my peers about my faith and learn about theirs. It became imminently clear to me that education and willingness to share beliefs between Muslim Americans and non-Muslims could help bridge the gaps between them and also reduce the feelings of alienation and thoughts of rebellion amongst the Muslim youth of America.
While educating others about Islam and learning about their faiths or lack of faiths have helped me blend into the American lifestyle, I have realized that it is certainly not the only method of balancing the American and the Muslim identity. Finding social support within the community, either with a family member or with a friend can certainly help in striking a balance between the Muslim and the American identities. It is critical that parents who impose Islamic rules upon children explain the Islamic rationale behind their actions and tell them the repercussions of breaking those rules in their lives. It is also of integral importance that Muslim youth make an effort to learn more about their faith and reach a logical consensus with the Islamic law.
Although today, I sometimes find myself in awkward situations and have a difficult time striking the right equilibrium between my Islamic and American lifestyles, I have started to emerge as someone confident about my faith and Muslim identity. I still face constant struggles with my Muslim Pakistani identity and my American one, but I am now able to rationalize some of the rules characterizing my faith with my newfound knowledge. I have been able to come to terms with my Muslim identity, despite the constant friction it creates, with the knowledge I have sought and the knowledge I continue to seek. Today, rather than seeing Islam as an inhibitive and archaic restraint on my life, I have started perceiving it as a significant aspect of my identity – an aspect that makes me who I am today.