Foot in the sink: a reflection on a Muslim identity workshop
When Tabitha handed out the gingerbread men and asked us to fill them with words describing ourselves, I turned to Amina and asked her what she sees when she looks in the mirror.
“I don’t know,” she replied. Her brother made a joke or two about a missing tooth and other physical characteristics, but in all seriousness: it is a really tricky task. There’s so many yous you could be, you should be, you wish you were, you think you are, you’re expected to be, you’re stuck being; so many things that make you, you - what are you really, at your core?
One of the older girls looked at me sheepishly, remarking, “I just don’t know what to write!”
My question was: “You don’t know what to write, or you’re scared to write what you think you are?”
So let’s talk about what it means to grow up Muslim in Australia. The first time I really considered my Islamic identity was the first time I had a school friend come over for a play date.
It was a monumental experience, actually – it marked the clash of two worlds that had before been entirely separate. Unconsciously, there were things that I’d do at home that I wouldn’t do at school, and there were things I’d do at school that I wouldn’t think to do at home. For example, eating rice and curry with my hands. Well, it’s not like I had rice and curry at school, but instinctively, I wouldn’t have used my hands anyway. And at school… there’s an accent. An accent I wasn’t aware of, but it didn’t come home with me for a long time. So yeah, having a friend over was going to be life changing, but I didn’t have these exact thoughts with me. I was in grade one. I just remember the heightened feeling of anticipation and excitement, with a touch of ambiguous uncertainty.
So it began well, I think. I say this because I don’t really remember, and therefore it can’t have been all that exciting. What I do remember starts from the moment my mother called out: “Have you prayed?”
My friend and I stopped playing. I looked at her. She looked at me. I hadn’t prayed. I didn’t really want to right now, but if I didn’t, my mother would come get me, and that wouldn’t end well. So I jumped to my feet. It dawned on me that this was something my friend didn’t do. As far as I knew, she wasn’t… Muslim. So. Hm. Well.
“Um… you stay here,” I said abruptly. “I have… to do something. Just stay here. I’ll be back.”
I ran off to the bathroom to make wudhu.
Now, my parents tried their best to raise me with good manners, so that when it came to washing my feet, I was told to do it in the bathtub or shower like a civilised person. However, I always enjoyed the acrobatics of stretching my legs over the counter and sticking my feet under the tap one at a time. It was during this awkward pose that I heard the door creak open behind me. When I looked up into the mirror with an impending sense of dread, my friend came into view. She stared. I stared. Then a smile spread across her face, a look of pure, evil glee.
“What are you doing?” she asked in that snotty way that can only be managed by a little girl.
I was mortified. Speechless. What am I doing? What am I doing?
“It’s… this… thing… we do. In... our religion.”
You can imagine how this unfolded. The initial peals of laughter. The humiliating retelling at school the next day. And then it was forgotten, because let’s be real, our attention spans are not great at that age and there’s always new drama to be distracted with. But, over the course of – oh, I don’t know, 10 years? More? – this story would suddenly come up in social gatherings, and I would find myself smiling and laughing on the outside, while dying painfully on the inside.
It’s not really all that tragic. I guess what strikes me about this incident was my inability to deal with it. It’s something I didn’t know how to defend or remedy. My friend didn’t mean harm in the end (hence why she is still being referred to as ‘friend’ and not ‘malicious snothead’), and the joke is always short lived and fondly recalled. Explaining it would just take the fun out. And it wasn’t like she really wanted to know.
This incident also drew to attention other things. Like the ‘special’ halal lunch orders, or just that question from well-intentioned teachers: “I don’t know, are you allowed to eat this?” There was that weird time of the year I didn’t eat or drink a drop during the day. There was the decision to wear the hijab, and no longer could I be involved in the fun of trying out new hairstyles or dressing up in the same way. For me, these things were not accompanied by pointed fingers and taunting. It was a vague discomfort from within.
I guess it comes from doing things differently to others. It can be a struggle to explain this to your peers, but sometimes they don’t even care to know, and the indifference is just as frustrating. You have grown up on entirely different foundations. How can you explain praying to someone who has no concept of God? Halal food or hijab to someone who has always been told they can do whatever they want, whenever they want, however they want? Do you need to explain these things at all?
I think the problem here is that I allowed other people to define what’s normal, irrespective of whether they were trying to impose their definitions on me. So what that I was washing my feet? Multiple times during the day, millions of Muslims across the world do the same thing (but perhaps not in the sink…). And pray. And eat halal. And follow a dress code. And celebrate certain days. It’s normal to them. It’s normal to me.
There is no grand revelation here for you to own your Muslim identity. Tabitha gave us some handy advice about resilience, being kind to yourself, and seeking help when you need it. Some days you don’t even need to think about this, other days you will. Sometimes this advice can be easily implemented, other times it won’t. Some of us make being a Muslim in a non-Muslim zone look so easy. Some of us have greater challenges than others. Most of us – no matter if we always colour inside the lines or never get a parking ticket – will be held responsible for the violent actions of someone somewhere far away just because they claim the same faith.
I am reminded of the hadith where the Prophet (SAW) is carrying some bags for an old lady, who rants and raves throughout the whole journey about how much she hates this Muhammad fellow and wants nothing to do with him. Our Prophet (SAW) says nothing, until she thanks him at the end and asks for his name.
Imagine how this might happen now. You might fling her bags to the floor and storm off into the distance. Probably you’ll discreetly film her and upload it onto Youtube later. Or maybe you’ll wait until the end as well, and when you reveal yourself, you’ll do so with relish, you know – “take that, you old cow!”
However, I think our Prophet (SAW) was content with who he was and what he had to do, and that ultimately, he only had to answer to Allah (SWT) and no one else. So take heart. While you work on being you and getting comfortable in your Muslim shoes, Allah knows you’re trying, and who else really matters?
Amina wrote few things on her gingerbread man – that she was a little sister, smart, and, best of all, happy. I saw another girl filling hers up with a number of self-proclaimed virtues – that she was nice and kind and intelligent and pretty and fun. It’s sweet to see all this self-confidence in children, considering that adulthood seems to eat it all up. Insha’allah we remember the good things on our bad days as we work our way to being the best versions of ourselves.