Stories from the Intersections: The Invisible Muslim

Growing up Muslim in a white community

People of different identities standing at intersections, each marked with street signs that read things like international student, ADHD, etc.
Many people occupy a crossroads of multiple identities. ILLUSTRATION: Stella Nguyen / The Peak

By: Aicha Habib, SFU Student

Content warning: discussions of Islamophobia

We all use different characteristics to identify who we are: “I’m a mom” or “I’m a student.” I find it fascinating which aspects we focus on when introducing ourselves. The list of what I am is long: I’m a writer, I’m white, I’m a daughter, I’m Middle Eastern, I’m creative, I’m queer, I’m a sister, I’m a grad student, I’m Muslim, and so much more. I pride myself on being creative so I often lead with that. However, creativity is a skill that can be developed. Being half Scandinavian and half Middle Eastern, on the other hand, is something that cannot change and something most other people are not. 

 I grew up in a predominantly white country, and despite my Middle Eastern sounding name, nothing really screams brown about me. My family on my father’s side are entirely from the Middle East but I did not get the thick, dark, luscious hair that my cousins have. When looking at my mother, it is easy to see that there must be a different color palette in me to juxtapose her blonde hair, blue eyes, and fair complexion. But when I walk down the street by myself, no one would think twice about my heritage. This has obviously granted me a privilege that my brown family members do not have, and no one would ever guess that we are related. My heritage is a huge part of who I am and how I became me, but navigating it has not always been easy.

When I was born, my family was surprised to see a blonde baby enter the world. This, along with the fact that I lived in a very white, affluent neighborhood, whereas my Muslim family members lived in a poorer, more diverse neighbourhood made me feel like an outsider in my own family. 

Being the only Muslim in my small-town “community” ensured I would not feel like I belonged there either. I was repeatedly told that if I did not eat pork, I could not be part of the community — I don’t think the bigots realized that would alienate vegetarians and vegans too. In high school, I went to a friend’s house for dinner. She told tell her parents her new friend doesn’t eat pork because she’s Muslim. When I turned up, they laughed and said they expected me to wear a hijab and have a unibrow. As if all Muslims looked the same and that there was a problem with having body hair. They added I wasn’t at all like the other Muslims, as if it was a compliment. Islamophobia is real, and the Islamophobes of the world seem to think I’m on their side because of my fair skin and lack of a hijab.

But things also got complicated when I would go to my dad’s home country every summer. People would stare at me and yell at my father for not teaching me the language properly. I was so confused about what I was that, until the age of 10, I would tell people I was half Muslim. Everywhere I went, I was never whole, just half.

This all led me to seek a place of belonging outside of my home. I moved to the UK and found a chosen family, where no one cared what I was, just who I was. I’ve found the same thing in Vancouver, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how many people are like me here. I imagine it’s because most people here have some sort of different background, as settlers in Canada — at least in my community. 

I feel more comfortable about being multinational here, but I still put a lot of emphasis on my multicultural upbringing, because the child in me will always long for belonging — and just being Scandinavian doesn’t properly explain who I am. When people talk about how close their Muslim family is, I want to join in, because so is mine. When they talk about how their Middle Eastern aunts always gossip and will tell any secret to the whole community, I want to join in, because so do mine.

When I learned that you can’t really be half Muslim, I started going by just Muslim. Like many others in their 20s, I ended up with a religious identity crisis. Is there really a God? If so, where is she when I need her? When I was a teenager, I became aware of LGBTQIA+ issues (the 2S came even later, when I moved here). When I moved to the UK, I realized I also belonged in that community but found it seemed to clash with many organized religions, including Islam. I didn’t want to be associated with people who held outdated beliefs and, therefore, not with any organized religion. But is it possible to have the faith without the organization behind it?

As I was trying to juggle my conflicting cultures, I spent a few years not identifying as Muslim because it seemed like such an all-or-nothing kind of situation to me. When I became old enough to feel more confident in who I was, I realized most of my beliefs matched the core of Islam: be good to each other, respect your family, and give to people in need. 

So why wasn’t I Muslim? Because I like to have a drink every once in a while? Because I don’t wear a hijab? Because I’m queer? I’m pretty sure Allah has bigger fish to fry and couldn’t care less that I have a frozen margarita or who I one day choose to love. And the Allah I believe in does not preach sexism or homophobia.

I am an invisible minority and I will never try to compare that to a visible one. I will never stop trying to learn how my white privilege sets me apart from my family and how I am responsible for using that to make a difference. I will also never stop trying to find the things that unite me and my family: wanting to do good, relying on each other, and loving each other. And I will never stop teaching people that being Muslim is about your values, not your looks.