By Javaria Akbar
14 Nov 2014
As unthinkable as it seems there’s a tiny speck of me that understands why one in seven of the British jihadists who have gone to Iraq and Syria are women. I must stress that I’m horrified by Isil and its radicalised version of Islam that stands for nothing but depravity, murder and savagery - when the religion I know only teaches peace, inclusion and love. Feeling marginalised does not of course justify acts of terrorism.
However, what I do understand is the desperate search to find a place where you belong – the human desire to be listened to and valued is incredibly strong. For me the only place where I feel like I belong is with my three Muslim sisters who are my best friends, my confidantes and my biggest allies – this is despite having been born and educated in supposedly multicultural and tolerant Britain.
I can talk to my sisters about arranged marriage without them thinking it’s archaic and oppressive. We’ll often chat about God, religion and prayer together, without worrying about being seen as madwomen who hobnob with the fairies that live in our back gardens.
Aged 31, working as a SEO content writer in London, I would always prefer to have a Pepsi in a Pizza Hut with my siblings than go to a bar and attempt to schmooze with a tipsy boss when I’m perfectly sober and dying to go to bed.
My experience of being a British Asian Muslim and feeling like ‘the other’ in the country I was born in has led me to create this microcosm of family friendships, despite my parents moving here from Pakistan some 40 years ago.
You see I’ve had too many typical ‘awkward race moments ‘in the UK - such as walking into a cafe in a predominantly white area and being ignored. Or feeling embarrassed when friends tell me I’m no fun because I choose not to drink. Once my exam results were mixed up with the only other Asian girl in my class at university and I was told I had failed, when in fact, she had.
I’ve been horrified by someone throwing a strange liquid on me from a passing car as I walked down the street, forcing me to rush home and shower. And I’ve felt pushed into a corner to discuss arranged marriage and virginity in work environments by men who felt they could ask me about my sex life just because I am a Muslim woman.
Moments like these wake you up from feeling like part of the gang. You realise that you were never in the members’ circle. Just like the fat kid at school who was the last one to be picked for the rounders’ team and never caught the ball, despite having her hands outstretched for the duration of play.
And these small things, when piled high, can hurt. Quiet judgement still exists and it’s hard to be open, honest and truly yourself when you’re faced with ridicule, misinterpretation, anger and sometimes, even just blind curiosity from others.
I hate to admit this but it's just easier to be friends with people who share your beliefs and your skin colour. They’ve faced the same prejudices and they recognise your life because they’re living it.
I’ll concede that I can’t be bothered to start new friendships because they inevitably begin with the same questions about race, religion and politics that I’m tired of answering. So when my personal space is about to be encroached on, I choose to retreat before attack, which isn't doing me any favours. Being bad at maintaining friendships is not something that I’m over the moon about. Most of the relationships I have are only surface-deep where I tend to shy away from discussing my private life. I wish I was better at it but I simply don’t feel comfortable.
I think it’s the same for many children of immigrants in the UK - who cherish having a comforting group of friends that they can turn to when they feel jaded by judgement and anxious about divulging personal opinions in a space where they may not be welcomed. Today’s British Asian Muslim women are met with a three-pronged pitchfork of prejudice: the intersectional abrasions of racism, sexism and religious discrimination are enough to make anyone run for the hills and hunker down with a pair of heavy duty earplugs. With political parties like Ukip and the BNP banging on the door, spouting vile diatribes about the evils of immigration, it’s little wonder that we don’t want to answer the call to integrate.
Many Muslim women even feel apprehensive about revealing their personal identity, which means the onus is on others to make them feel welcomed and included so that they can feel comfortable enough to share. And once they do contribute they shouldn’t be singled out for speaking up.
As mother of a two-year old little girl, I hope things will be different for my daughter. I really do. With every generation, people from immigrant backgrounds tend to integrate further. I doubt she will learn Urdu from me but I still want Islam to be a part of her life because it's a massive part of mine. I want her to feel comfortable making friends but at the same time be confident enough not to hide her own opinions about faith and Islam. Being different to the majority makes you silent sometimes but I want her to have a voice. And be proud of it.
We’ve got all the tools here to create a cohesive society that values the individual – we just need to learn how to use them.
Running away to Syria is not going to help build a better future for Muslim women in the UK. Far from it. However, I think the Persian poet Rumi put it perfectly when he wrote: “It may be that the satisfaction I need depends on my going away, so when I’ve gone and come back, I’ll find it at home.”