Reflections on the year that changed my life

I’ve been meaning to write about the year that changed my life, but you see, a large part of my individual culture is Somali. I am not sure if I can say all of me, because so many things make up the pieces of who I am. I think it would be safe to say for most of us, if not all of us, we are made of many things. There are many parts to us.

The reason, I mention the Somali part here regarding myself is because we tend to be not very “melodramatic”. Somalis experience events, ponder and pray about it, then keep it moving. We tend to not dwell and immortalize life experiences. Like everything in life, this has its advantageous and disadvantageous.

About two years ago, I was at an interfaith event. I am a Muslim and I am easily identified as a Muslim, because I wear the hijab, also known as the “headscarf.” At that event a man came up to me and questioned very sincerely, why more Muslims don’t attend vigils honoring the victims of 9/11. It was from his experience. It may not mirror yours or mines, but it was his. I personally didn’t share that observation; however it did make me think of culture differences when the matter concerns responding to tragedy.

And when I say culture, please understand I am speaking specifically of Somali culture and not “Muslim culture.” What many people fail to understand is that Muslims are not a monolithic group, but over 20% of humanity, encompassing cultures (not to mention individuals) as diverse as the human race. (ie American Muslims share the same culture fabric present in America, this will be different than Muslims in Pakistan, which will be different from Muslims in Nigeria.)

The man’s question made me think of Somalis. I am speaking from my experience and it was hard for me to imagine Somalis (perhaps not so much the younger generation) attending or initiating vigils to honor victims of a tragedy, especially year after year. And when it comes to (National) tragedies, Somalis have had more than their fair share.

Never have I seen the Somali community as a whole hold any event similar to the events which are held throughout the US to remember the victims of 9/11. Recently there was a tragedy suffered by a Somali family. Those from the Somali community prayed and attended to the family. It was the American neighbors, who took it one step further and set up a memorial to remember the victims in this family. It would be unfair to say one didn’t care, because they didn’t attend the memorial or set up a memorial to remember victims. So because I come from this culture, I understood not participating in vigils or days of remembrance doesn’t translate to apathy or worse malice. People do grieve differently.

People also experience historic events differently. Goodness. I related all of that just to make this one point. If you plan on reading this, then I advise you to sit back and relax, because knowing myself, it may turn out to be long read. I have an extreme difficulty to keep the written word short, it’s a miracle I am able to use twitter.

September 11, 2001, changed the direction my life would take and perhaps that would ring true for most Americans and even for folks beyond our borders. I don’t believe my experiences are of any distinction to mention; and this played a large role on why for a long time I didn’t find it necessary to write about my reflections even on my own blog. I guess it was easier to blame the Somali part of me, but the greater truth perhaps is the question of what makes my experience “special” to write about. Then again, I also wonder what is the point of writing, but to write. It’s not so much about having an effect as much as sharing some reflections, which I have gained along the way. I will attempt to do that in this post and I hope if you are still reading at this point, that you may benefit in some way or in the least see reflections which may be new to you.

If I were to describe my life up to this point, I would put it in three major phases. These phases are typical: childhood, adolescence, and now adulthood. But perhaps what is not typical is the paradigm shift that I underwent in each of those phases.

I was born into a Muslim Somali family. I think labels, like religious, conservative, liberal or the like are very subjective and for that reason I tend to shy away from labeling. In my home, my parents followed Islam and faith was very important to them. They prayed five times a day, never missed Ramadan and zakat, always gave to charity, and were very ethical in their dealings. Throughout my childhood there was always someone living with us, until they got back on their feet. Upholding justice and kindness were very sensitive issues in my household. You were to do good for the sake of God Alone, and not for praise, or recognition from people, to do so was considered a great sin.

I never attended any religious schools and my parents never made that a requirement for me. For many Muslim kids, memorizing the Quran is compulsory in their household. I don’t remember that ever being the case in my household. Today I regret my parents didn’t take a more forceful approach to make me learn the Quran. I may have been a Hafid (one who memorizes the Quran) now, then again that would mean I would have greater responsibilities as in the saying he who is given much, much is expected from him. I also wish I was forced into many other things, like learning foreign languages. Today I may have been fluent in many languages. But hey, I did love my childhood too.

I always attended public school, in which I was usually the only Muslim girl. From an very early age (six), I wore the hijab. I must have been told the reason for the hijab, but there are no distinct moments, which stand out to me. I never questioned it, until very later during my adolescence. The best way I can describe the concept the hijab held for me back then is perhaps like skin color. It’s part of you. It’s something that has always been there. My mother wore it and so did all other Muslim women I knew. It’s what I knew, a large part of my identity, so it was never an issue to me. However, I don’t think I ever understood it’s purpose until much later.

I don’t remember ever being told you’re a girl, you can’t do this or be this way. I was raised with no limitations regarding my faith, race, or gender. I was never shamed or lived in fear. I was free to choose my friends and hang out with whom I pleased (perhaps it was a coincidence that I bonded with kids, who never made my parents worry, but from experience, I know religious and race differences alone are enough to put fear in children). My parents never made distinctions concerning my friends. I was never told so and so is of that race or of that faith so be cautious of them. I was never told be friends just with those who share my faith or background. Because of this, my friends were as diverse as the world and came from families of various religious backgrounds. We never realize how we are shaped until much later, but those roots have greatly impacted my relationships throughout my journey. I feel very comfortable with diversity and always approach people as individuals. I never feel uncomfortable in the presence of those who are different than me. As long as there is respect, I can find comfort and feel at home in a church, synagogue, or a temple. It is with hearts I have always bonded with, not with my “own kind.”

I played various sports and hanged out with my buddies till after dark. I was allowed to listen to all kinds of music and go to the movies with my friends. The most scandalous thing I have ever done was shoplift with my buddies, which we were caught and the manger was kind enough to let us go with a warning. We never returned to it afterwards. I have no idea how we, a large group of us reasoned it was okay to shoplift as stealing was considered one of the worst things we could do. It is beyond me and as an adult I find it fascinating the reasoning of kids, but we did steal for fun and we didn’t turn out to be criminals. My friends and I also found a porno tape on the street and watched it at a friend’s house. By this point, I already knew what sex was. Kids are smarter than grown folks give them credit for. However the sex on the video was so disgusting and terrifying. It didn’t look human to me. I could only stomach a few minutes of it, but I don’t remember protesting the watching of it. It was not sexual to us, but something strange and funny. Kids are like a mob, often you go with your crew where they lead you. I also used to read a lot as a young kid and was happy to learn from those stories, sex was not so violent. I am so thankful to the softer side of love making, otherwise I may have developed a sex phobia from the trauma of the porno I watched as a kid.

Many years later, as a college sophomore I would take a Human Sexuality course. It was a fascinating course in which I learned a lot and on curriculum was a showing of a porno video, dubbed “educational video.” Leading up to the day the video would be showed, I was very nervous and feeling extremely weird. I, the girl who had seen a porno before the sixth grade and who was very well read was unsure if I could attend class that day. I convinced myself it was educational, but following the introduction in which the actors were fully clothed, as soon as the actor went to fondle himself to demonstrate the art of masturbation, I couldn’t handle it emotionally. I turned right away and never felt so embarrassed in my life. So I walked out the classroom. It was the right decision for me. I believe in being comfortable, rather being afraid of embarrassment. Perhaps it was the setting, being in a room full of students who were not my buddies, but a large part of it in my opinion was due to the shift I had undergone in my adolescence, which I will relate in Phase 2 of this reflection post.

The funny thing is, I know some folks who would say when they look at that girl, the only Muslim girl friends with a bunch of kids, who were not Muslims, both boys and girls, playing sports, shoplifting for fun, and watching a dirty video was headed for trouble in her future and may bring “shame to her family.” Perphaps, I may even have been among those folks at one point in my life when I was on the outside looking in at someone else, but along the way I learned the complexity of the human condition and things are not what they always seem to be. So I learned to be merciful or remind myself to be merciful instead of being judgemental.

Despite these freedoms in my childhood, I must have picked up what was proper or improper behavior for a Muslim girl. It may not have been preaching as much as it was leading by example. As a kid, I believe I learned lessons best from examples/stories and actions, rather than preaching or logic, because it is examples I still remember and not so much the lectures that I am certain I was given. And those examples may have even been subtle, and were unnoticed by me during those times, but subconsciously I was like a sponge and soaking in those principles of right and wrong. Subtle examples like from my older cousin. She would take us out to do fun kid things and let us bring along our friends. We would play sports together. She listened to music and watched movies. She had no problem being friends with all kinds of people regardless of faith or race or gender. She was comfortable being around guys yet had strong principles in her religious teachings. She was never harsh or condemning to us as kids, who made mistakes. She wore hijab with a long loose shirt and jeans. She was proud of who she was and very comfortable in being a Muslim woman. She was just very comfortable in her own skin. And she always stopped to pray her salah wherever she was. I never realized it back then. I couldn’t. Most kids don’t stop and ponder. It was many years later as an adult in which I would understand how those subtle examples shaped my ideals. She was a good role model for little ol me. I never told her. Thank you Sahra.

The paradigm shift from the childhood stage to adolescence will come in the year I was to enter high school. The event which took place the day before the start of school, I would say is the day that I become an adult. It was the beginning of the shift, which would take place only weeks later.

I was a young and outgoing teen, and of course had a certain world view, in other words living in my own little bubble. I don’t know where the idea came from exactly, but I intended to finally take off the hijab. I don’t think it was a decision that was made just in one day, but one that many moments and experiences led to. I can’t really tell you what was going through my mind. I feel so removed from that young perhaps lost girl I once was. As I said before, I never really had an issue with the hijab in principle. I never hated it or despised that I wore it. I was never ashamed, even though on many occasions I was questioned what the heck I was doing wearing “that” and sometimes even insulted, and once physically assaulted in which one kid yanked off my hijab while in school. Despite some of these challenges, I don’t remember ever being overwhelmed. It helped the good days always outweighed any challenges, but what helped most I believe is that any insults or challenges I may have encountered because of my dress, it never reached my spirit. I think that is where danger lies, when the spirit is wounded. Never was my spirit ever wounded. Perhaps I was a tough kid or perhaps I was just lucky. Alhamdullah in any case.

When I try my best to remember why I came to the decision to take off my hijab, I think it was the start of high school that was the biggest influencer. I saw it as a new beginning and therefore a new me. A large part of it was also the little girl in me, who wanted to be beautiful and have her hair styled beautifully. Oh the things we worry about as kids. It’s not easy trying to remember what was going through my teenage mind, but the ultimate conclusion was that no more hijab and I was going to get my hair done at the salon for the first day of school, have my new outfit on and look the bomb (is that saying still in? hehe).

As fate would have it, my father drove me to the salon. I think if it was my mother, there may have been a different outcome. God it’s hard being a parent, now that I think of it. I am not a parent, but now that I am older I can wear their shoes and I can’t but find it difficult to raise a child in a contradicting world. May God bless our parents.

Before dropping me off, my father asked how long it will take. I went to the lady in charge, told her I wanted my hair to look like Alicia Keys (she had just come out with Fallen in 2001, I loved the look. I thought I would rock it). The lady told me the process would take like 4 hours. It was my first time getting my hair done on my own so I didn’t think anything of it. I was just excited and imagining my new beginning for the following day. I ran back outside to tell my father how long it would take and went back inside to get my hair done. I took off my hijab, sat on the chair to have my hair inspected by the lady, when my dad with this sulking expression walked into the salon. I was very surprised. I thought he had left. And the look on his face, it still makes me emotional today. I had never seen my father look so sad and I was taken aback immediately. He had realized my intentions. But I hadn’t realized I would be making one of the most important decisions of my life.

I can’t remember the exact words, but in a soft voice and holding that same wounded expression, he asked me to confirm what he had realized. I told him it was true and I no longer wanted to wear the hijab. I am still seated in the chair and the woman has started to comb my hair. My father is in front of me, looking like the breath was knocked out of him. I don’t know what was going through his mind. Perhaps he felt like he had failed his job of being a parent to teach his child, because here was his daughter abandoning a part of their religious tradition.

The moment to decide came, when he asked me to not pursue my decision. It was not an ultimatum. He didn’t yell or condemn me. He didn’t make any religious arguments against what I intended to do. He only advised me that I not do it. What I am most certain of is that it was not what was said and I am so glad he didn’t yell at me, because I may have rebelled, but I couldn’t rebel against the expression on my father’s face. It was what made me get up from my seat, kindly tell the lady I no longer was interested, and put my hijab back on to walk out with my father.

That day, I didn’t realize how heavy that decision was to be for my future and my journey. I became an adult that day. I made an important decision all on my own and in my heart it felt like it was the right decision immediately. The best way I could describe that feeling is that it felt like you grew up with a best friend and somewhere down the line you got too big for your friend. You became popular and you joined a popular crew, leaving your friend behind. Then one day a moment of truth comes. Your new crew is picking on your friend for no reason other than thinking they are better than him. In that moment there is a choice to be made. In your heart you realize how wrong your new crew is and you take a stand for what you deep down believe is right. So you join your friend and stop pretending of being something you’re not and chasing fake glitter. That is what it felt like that day. I didn’t belong to what I was seeking. It was never for me.

That was in August. I did attend the first day of school with my hijab and although I made an important life decision, I was not finished in being settled. Although I was a Muslim and grew up with certain values, I was still floating around and not yet anchored. A few weeks later, 9/11 would occur. Fearing for my safety, my parents pull me out of school and I would be homeschooled for a year. Another and more powerful paradigm shift would take place in my world view and shape who I was to become. I would never be the same again. For the first time in my life, I would become anchored and the solitude would allow me the opportunity to really get to know myself.

Phase 2: coming soon.

2 Responses to Reflections on the year that changed my life

  1. Chinyere says:

    Salaam,

    I love this story…can’t wait to read phase 2. I also love reading hijab stories, both for women who adhere and those of us who don’t. It means so many different things to so many of us, and it gives me a greater appreciation of who we are as a grander sisterhood to hear why we do, why we don’t, why we must and why we can’t.

    It’s so interesting how American a thing it is to hold vigils. Culturally, African Americans do a lot of vigils for individuals. I’m not sure if it’s because of the amount of violence in our various communities, but we go as far as make t-shirts for individuals who have passed, usually those who were the victims of violence, and celebrate their birthdays for years after their deaths.

    It’s very interesting, though, that one would take a party not participating in a vigil as indifference or hostility. My own personal spirituality leads me more to praying acutely and not honoring tragedy annually…so I understand your perspective in that sense.

    • Guulo says:

      Wa alaikum Salaam Chinyere. Thank you for commenting. I remember, that is how I landed on your blog more than a year ago and loved reading about your experiences, I used my name “Fatima” and not Guulo. You are so open and honest. I wish I had commented more, but usually I tend to not comment when I agree with the writer. So thank you for sharing your reflections and experiences openly and honestly. I don’t think that is an easy thing to do. I have usually stayed away from writing hijab stories, because for so long that has been the only issue concerning Muslim women. We are much more than a hijab. At the sametime i do understand the power it holds, which I didn’t really understand until that year I was homeschooled and had a lot of time to question and think about myself and place in the world.

      Peace and Love

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