Gender & Identity, Love, Life Stories

I grew up believing awful stereotypes about Muslims – but I’m Muslim.

I thought I wasn't allowed to go out during the week because I was a Muslim. Not because my dad didn’t want me staying out late.

Growing up in a primarily white and conservative county, I was forced at a younger age than most to understand my identity.

As a Palestinian-American Muslim girl, I was an enigma to so many of my friends and their parents. Nevertheless, I was a child and therefore just as confused in my childhood about their own religions; at six, my brain could never wrap around the fact that some of my friends would go to their place of worship on a Sunday while my father would always talk about leaving from our family restaurant for the mosque on Friday afternoons. Yet, despite how equally confused over each other’s religions we were, Christianity was considered the norm and only I would have the burden to explain my way of life.

I was the token Muslim friend for as long as I can remember, even before I understood so, and that meant I was left with the responsibilities of such a position. I think back to when I was growing up when peers began to ask me questions upon hearing that I was Muslim. I was young when I realized that my battle against stereotypes would have to be one I’d fight alone.

Peers started to ask me a barrage of questions in our classes together. Did my father force my mother to wear the hijab? Would I be forced to wear the hijab? Did my parents have an arranged marriage, and would I be expected to have one myself? Once, when I was getting a haircut, and my mother had left to go pick up my younger brother from school, my hairdresser released an avalanche of questions that seemed to be probing for confirmation on my end that the women in my family were oppressed.

I realized I would always be seen as a representative of Muslims, solely based on the fact I was the first Muslim many had ever met. I went out of my way to prove that I was outspoken so that nobody could ever assume I was oppressed. Eventually, however, I had gone to the point of trying to anticipate biases people would have in advance so that I could preemptively prove them wrong.

Would people start to think that the reason my parents said I couldn’t go to someone’s party was that I was Muslim? Would they start to think that all Muslims were stricter than normal parents? That they never let their daughters leave home? I had created a world full of all the ignorant assumptions that people around me had made, and I soon started to believe them myself.

I never was asked these questions, but I always believed everyone to be thinking them and began to wonder if there was some truth to what they’d say. In my imaginary world, I always assumed the worst and viewed my own parents in a way that played out like a thread of comments on a Facebook post gone wrong, with islamophobic accusations thrown left and right just because someone involved was Muslim. In my initial effort to prevent the world from seeing my parents as stereotypically oppressive, I became quick to interpret everything they had done as oppressive.

In this world, I saw that me not being able to go out multiple times a week was because I was a Muslim, and not just because my dad didn’t want me staying out late on school nights. Stereotypes against Muslims had me believe my family was more likely to be strict and oppressive. If asked to clean my room, I automatically saw the situation from an outsider’s perspective, overanalyzing the situation and wondering if my dad was telling me to do so out of the belief that good wives aren’t disorganized.

My inherited skepticism from the world around me had me lashing out. Many nights ended with shouting fights, with my own internal satisfaction at the fact that I felt nobody could say I, as a Muslim girl, didn’t stand up for myself. This went on for nearly a year until my father beseechingly asked me, “Why are you acting out like this? I just don’t understand.”

Later, in the silence of a house that has heard too much noise in one night, I would repeat that question in my own head and struggle to find an answer. It was when I actually sat down with my parents that I realized my paranoid perception of the world around me was not the reality. I understood that my father truly wanted me to be independent for myself and not dependent on others.

I had spent so long believing in the worst situation that I hadn’t seen they wanted the best for me.

His dreams involved my success, of earning the college degree he never held himself, of being financially stable of my own doing rather than from marrying rich. My mother wanted me to be educated, someone whose success she could brag about on the phone with her friends.

I had spent too much time blinded by the belief that my parents were a physical manifestation of Muslim stereotypes that I couldn’t see the people they truly were.

After we’ve seen the havoc wreaked by ignorance, it’s time we recover from the shock of it all. That shock helped feed into my own paranoia, but now it’s time to wake up. In an environment of adversity, I was able to thrive because I was forced to learn who I was.

Now, I’m thankful for those experiences as they’ve made me even more ready to take on the world as myself.