Indian or Muslim or an Indian Muslim?
an introspection of what influenced me as a child and continues to even today.
by Umama Momin
In December 2020, my sister-in-law gave birth to a baby boy. A week after he was born, we arranged a dinner to mark his arrival. The whole family was supposed to be there, but because of the pandemic, we limited it to just our family of seven, including my grandparents. The festivities, however, were not small; my mother made biryani, my father brought out his new barbecue grill to cook some delicious seekh kababs. There was a big pile of sweets in the kitchen, something for everyone. The new-born was surrounded by my grandparents and guests who visited for just a glimpse of him. Those who couldn’t be physically present, called to see him, to coo and gurgle as he looked at the little screen, bemused. I sat next to him, looking at the wondrous little being who had suddenly arrived in our lives. We had ordered a cake which had ‘Welcome Home Izyan’ written on it in dark red icing. There are plenty of gifts for the baby, none of which seem to matter to him much. My parents are absolutely overjoyed to be grandparents. They aren't looking outside the cocoon of euphoria. They don’t want to. If they do, they might catch a glimpse of what is happening to Muslims across the country.
I remember a moment when the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) protests were picking up, and atrocities against Muslims in India were just beginning to get ugly, I remember talking to my brother about having children. This conversation had ensued over WhatsApp when I had messaged him in a fit of rage about trees being cut in our housing society.
“With what face do we bring a kid into this world?” My brother wondered out loud.
“Don’t! Everything gets worse each day. Why put an innocent who never wanted any part in anything through all this?”
“I am still holding on, because you know, your sister-in-law would be ecstatic to have someone to call her own, other than her parents.” he said. I could not say anything else. Looking at my nephew now, there is nothing I wouldn’t do to protect him from getting sucked into the whirlpool this country is becoming.
Each day, it is worse than before. His smile keeps us all going, but how? And at what cost?
My family and me, c. 2001
My name is Umama Momin. It gives away my religious identity. Growing up, my life has been defined by fear and anxiety. I tried but I couldn’t escape the ‘othering’ of my identity. There was always an invisible thread holding me back from saying too much in fear of being told harsh things because I was a Muslim. And my anxiety remained with me, because I worried, maybe I did say too much!
Through all this, incidents in my childhood and adolescent years coupled with the general anxious dialogue in my house about our identities did not contribute much to my mental health.
This is a story from 10-11 years ago when Barack Obama was the President of the United States and the fugitive Osama Bin Laden was in the news all the time. To this day, I vividly remember what a classmate had said to me. My name was often contorted to sound like Obama and Osama, and this unfunny name was used to put me in my “place”. He had said, “Ae Osama, tu Muslim hai na? Phir jaa na Pakistan” (Aye Osama, you are a Muslim, aren’t you? Then go to Pakistan.)
Pakistan was always the villain. We were never given a chance to understand what that neighbouring country was like in reality. If you were a Muslim, you obviously belonged to this Muslim majority country. As a matter of fact, if you were an Indian Muslim, you were immediately accountable for all Muslim majority nations and their policies. And if we did try to defend our Indian roots, our place in the Indian sun, it all fell on deaf ears. If nobody was going to listen to us, why put in the effort to make them understand. So I kept quiet, I internalised my issues and I went about my life.
If classmates told me to go to Pakistan, or called me a terrorist, it was the discourse they were hearing in their homes. The problem did not lie with those children. It lay with the adults. Charity begins at home, doesn’t it? So does bigotry and hatred, mostly. I learnt this from my mother.
Like I said, I internalised my issues. I didn’t want to be identified as a Muslim, I was perhaps ashamed because I never got any respect for it either. During outings with friends and their parents, I chose vegetarian food. Who will put them through the trouble of asking for halal chicken for one person? Certainly not my timid self.
I was so ashamed that I didn’t even address my parents as ‘Ammi’ and ‘Abbu’ in public. When I got my first smartphone and a working SIM card I saved Ma’s number as ‘Mom’ because that was cool. It was the norm, the culture I believed I wanted to imbibe, just like all my friends. I didn’t want to be a ‘Muslim’ because being a Muslim meant being hated. It meant being backward and uneducated. I kept hearing that all Muslims were anti-India. I didn’t want to be one.
Nobody told me, that it was okay to be an Indian and a Muslim at once.
In 11th grade, when I decided to create a page on Instagram for my poetry, I decided not to reveal my identity. I was frightened of being judged on the basis of my religion instead of my words. I just didn’t want anything to do with my faith even though there was no escaping it.
My faith, after all, was my whole being.
Living in Mumbai, the negative attitude to our identity never weighed us down. But since my mother covered her head and went out in the crowd, we would often be treated as the uneducated underdogs, because that is how a common Muslim in India was perceived to be: uneducated, dirty, anarchic.
With the man whose love for books and writing shaped my career and me, my Nana.
I altered my personality even more as I started observing her. If people are going to judge me for my identity I better show them I am more than that. I read more books, mastered the English language, made myself look broadminded and ‘Western’. In doing so, I thought I would fit in. This was the only way I could detach myself from my Muslim identity but while doing so, I buried my identity as an Indian. I began to foster a pseudo-hatred for Pakistan because subconsciously, I wanted to be seen as a true Indian.
All these things made me a people-pleaser. I wanted to appease everyone so that nobody would ever complain about me or my identity. I tried so hard to shed my religious identity but I didn’t realise that it was an inseparable part of who I was.
As a child, and even as an adult today, I observed my parents behaving a certain way to not attract the wrong attention. I have been surrounded by a stream of unsaid advice. Don’t question the authority, even if it is a security guard at the airport. Don’t behave suspiciously in front of CCTV cameras. Be careful when travelling. My dad still tells my brother and me to watch our words because we’re Muslims. “Don’t post a lot of things against the government,” he says. He never talks about it explicitly, but I know he is terrified of the plight of Muslims in this country today. There is a tough façade behind which my father hides.
He curses and criticizes within the four walls of our home but tells us to never speak of anything against the establishment. We never question him, or think something is amiss when he asks us to live like this. Life goes on. Life always goes on. All this contributed in making me a people-pleasing skeptic. I was skeptical about people yet I wanted to please them, so they wouldn’t be skeptical about me. My trust issues grew and my mental health declined. As I grew older, I was wary of people and how they would treat me. Would they shun me, or would they accept me and act normal?
I still carry this skepticism with me. To this day I worry if I will be accepted despite my Muslim identity. Will the people I meet turn out to be Islamophobic? These thoughts swarm my head because I am afraid I will never be fully accepted by anyone, given my religious identity.
It took me a long time to finally accept my identity. I came to a realization as I battled the fear and skepticism. I had to know my religion, and contextualize it for myself. I began to read more Islamic texts. And they were never what the stereotypical imagery projected by the media showed everyone. I thought, if I knew my religious teachings correctly, I would be able to look people in the eye and defend my identity. I couldn’t defend what I didn’t understand.
I didn’t know why I had to wear a hijab. I had to dig up, question and understand that it was a choice I could make for myself. The knowledge brought some respite and confidence to my thoughts. Even with all the knowledge I imbibed about my choices, there is a part of me that never got over the anxiety of being a ‘hijabi’ woman. I still worry about stares, and being judged long after I have started loving my faith and identity. While acquiring knowledge, I decided on one thing, I wouldn’t let my religious identity compromise my personality. I would make it a healthy part of me and be steadfast on it. One is only as confident as they look. Some days, I am not and on those days, I am battling my anxiety that whispers cruel things in my ears amplifying my fear of rejection.
When I was 16 years old, on the threshold of accepting myself as I was, something brought me back to the start. I had gone to watch a movie with my best friend. During the intermission, as we stood in the queue for snacks, there was a gentleman in front of me. As a polite gesture I tapped his shoulder and said, “Hey, excuse me,”. The gentleman screamed, “HOW DARE SHE TOUCH ME? WHY DID SHE TOUCH ME? THIS MUSLIM?” I remember apologizing for being polite and I remember regretting touching him. This happened in Mumbai. India’s largest and most diverse city.
And as I went back to square one, the desperate need to fit in did not let me stop and think for a minute. There must be others like me. What if I found them and connected with them? Would this burden lessen?
I began studying at Jai Hind College in 2017. I started out as the quiet, timid 17 year old, afraid of judgements from everybody. But they never came. Instead I saw people like me, loving themselves as they were, comfortable in their own skin, and with their religion as Muslims. It was the first time I realised that it didn’t matter who you were. You just had to be.
It was here where I learnt to be a Muslim and an Indian, together.
My college and surprisingly, social media helped me in understanding where I came from and where I can go with myself. The answer is, everywhere. I can go everywhere, and I can be anyone I want to be. However, I couldn’t isolate this with the general sentiment of the country. This is when I became inclined fully to what I wanted to pursue professionally.
Journalism was my calling. Earlier, it stemmed from transforming my passion of writing into a profession. Slowly but steadily, it became about wanting to be the voice of people. To speak the truth of citizens like me.
But as I continued to grow, become confident, India spiralled into a deep, bottomless pit. My country was losing its humanity and it was going to take all of us down with it. My fear and anxiety began to surface, but this time they had increased tenfold. I was not worried about myself. I was worried for my family now. So worried, I did not even feel it anymore. It was a numbed pain that hurt when I touched the bruise. As I worried for my family, I thought running away was the most ardent solution. Escapism was the bright white light at the end of this tunnel. But if we all ran away, who will be the voice of amplification for our people who can’t run?
It was and is a dilemma. And I continue to look for answers for it.
I am terrified, for myself, for my family, and for this country.