WINNER OF THE ORWELL YOUTH PRIZE 2017 (SENIOR PRIZE)
2016 was a year of finding myself as a person, as any person’s teenage years generally are. I turned 16, a huge milestone in any young person’s life; I started college, something that as little as 2 years ago, the black dog that plagued me argued would never happen; and, above all, I came out to my strict, Muslim family as atheist.
Religion was a predominant part of my upbringing, something that my Pakistani-born grandfather made sure of. One of my earliest childhood memories is starting my first day at mosque at the age of 7. Even then, I had a strong feeling of not being quite ‘normal’, especially compared to my devout grandparents and parents. The level of tolerance I had for religious activities was not much; I recall abandoning the task I was set to work on within 10 minutes of entering the mosque (learning a language is difficult enough but the mind-numbing task of learning Quranic Arabic was too much for me to bear) in favour of drawing, and I quote my 7-year-old self here, ‘a pretty meadow!’
Its pretty clear that I was failing at the job of blending in as a studious Muslim child. The fear of being found out, as if the teacher could somehow read my mind and understand right away that I was far too questioning of Islam to just ‘follow the crowd’, was immense and the nerves I felt were obviously all-consuming considering I ended my first mosque experience by throwing up all over myself and crying. Not my finest moment, I must admit, but it got me out of the dreaded mosque attending for the next year – my mother was too embarrassed to send me back and slightly understood that it wasn’t the best idea to send an anxious child to a new environment without prior warning.
Honestly, I have no idea how my family didn’t figure out sooner that I wasn’t Muslim. When I was ‘pretending’, I barely prayed or engaged in religious conversation, something my younger sister prides herself on. Self-esteem was not something that I was blessed with: if you pretend to be something you’re not for almost 10 years, you don’t have a very good understanding of yourself as a person and I was also struggling to come to terms with the fact that I was bisexual. That was actually far easier to accept than being atheist – at least I could explain to my mother that liking girls had no reflection on the way that she brought me up but any self-respecting Muslim mother does nothing but blame herself on the way she brought her child up, if it turns out they don’t believe in God.
Actually telling my parents was admittedly one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. My timing could have no doubt used some work considering I managed to finally bite the bullet whilst we were on holiday over the summer. I certainly had no intention of telling them anytime soon; in fact my plan was to admit it just before I left for university. But certain circumstances brought my mental state into the light and I was asked to be honest with them. So I was. I will never forget my parents’ faces at that moment – my father had a face of quiet realisation, as if everything suddenly made sense now, and my mother rolled her eyes. She did not believe that I was being serious until finally, after an hour of assuring her that I was not trying to deceive her by drawing attention away from another matter, she cried.
I was finally free, and she cried. I finally admitted who I was, and she cried. I couldn’t help but feel like a disappointment, someone not worthy of the love and care that they had provided me with over the years. I had done nothing but try to make them proud all my life, doing well in school for them. But I obliterated all of that with a two-hour conversation. Why me out of all of my siblings, considering we were all brought up in the same way? I understood the pressure of being the eldest and ‘setting an example’ for them but here I was, telling them that I didn’t believe in what they believe in.
Now, a year later, I do not regret telling my parents the way that I did, it made much more sense to be upfront rather than ease into it. But at the time, I felt instant regret and almost made promises to try harder. However, I stopped myself from doing so; I realised no matter how hard I tried, I would never be able to fully believe in the existence of some allegedly omni benevolent deity out there. I say ‘allegedly’ because I cannot believe that if there is a God out there, He is all-loving. There is far too much suffering in the world for me to believe that.
Losing an identity that you are so used to all your life is an extremely bizarre process. Islam was a comfort blanket, something I could turn to in times of need, even though I did not believe in it, it was there. Suddenly, my comfort blanket was yanked out from beneath me and locked away forever. I felt like a fraud, finally apprehended for years of stealing an identity that was never mine in the first place. The next few months were hard, full of never-ending conversations about things that were always accepted: religious studies, marriage, children etc. I completely and utterly destroyed my family’s assumptions about my future by being myself and that was the hardest thing about it. How is a mother supposed to react when they realise that their oldest child is never going to get married? At least not in the way that they were expecting; an Islamic wedding.
Identities aren’t fixed. Your identity fluctuates over time; it depends on how you grow as a person. I’m not completely closing off the possibility of regaining the identity of Islam; I just find it highly improbable that my identity will fluctuate back to that. I’ve grown too much over the last year to find ‘the path of Islam’ again, as my grandmother puts it, as if I ever was on the path in the first place. My identity will no doubt change again, in ways that I could not possibly imagine now, but I don’t think that I will ever go back to a place I was never fully comfortable with.
What is my identity now? I’ve assumed the identity of atheist but in doing so, I’ve lost my family in a way. Although they are physically with me, I’ve lost them. Family is a huge part of anyone’s identity and to lose that after trying to find something else has been hard, not just for me. My family have lost a daughter, a sister, a member of their community. For the rest of my life, I am going to be on the outside looking in. I’m never truly going to feel like a part of them again because I’m really not a part of them. I’ve lost so many identities and gained one. But I wouldn’t wish to go back because it’s the only identity I’m proud of being able to say I am. It’s the only identity that grounds me and reminds me that I’m still here and have accomplished so much more than I ever expected I would be able to.
‘You’re so brave,’ I’ve been told countless times but no, I am really not. In my eyes, after losing the identity of ‘Muslim’, I’ve gained the identity of ‘traitor’. I’ve betrayed my family – as melodramatic as that sounds – and I’ve betrayed over a billion good people who somehow manage to have much more faith than I do. Why do those people get to hang onto their identity and I don’t? I suppose I’ll never have a real answer to that question. Sometimes, I wish that I could believe, even if it was only to please my family and our community. I only wish this on days where I feel like there’s nothing I can do in my life that would make up for the atrocious act of self-realisation.