‘Too brown to be white and too white to be brown.’ I’m sure you’ve heard that skin-crawling phrase before. For children of immigrants, it implies that you are too ‘other’ to fit in with your ‘Western’ peers, yet too Westernized to fit in with the members of your extended family who are still ‘back there.’ This is something I’ve been struggling with a lot recently.
I’m an Arab, Muslim woman, born and raised in the U.K. to Libyan parents. I was educated in American international schools my whole life, and because it was quite a liberal inclusive school, I never felt that different from my peers. Sure my hair wasn’t straight like that of the girls in my class, and my ass and hips were a lot bigger than theirs, AND my basketball coach had to call a timeout for me to break my fast when we had games during Ramadan – but, for the most part, my ‘otherness’ was embraced, celebrated, and accepted. I also happened to be the only Arab and Muslim in my graduating class, but again, it wasn’t ever really an issue, that was until I went to university and came across other Arabs and Muslims.
My father happened to help set up the student Islamic society at the local university I attended; he and some of the other men in our local community ensured that Muslim students were designated a prayer room on campus and also arranged for families to take turns cooking meals for the students during Ramadan. My local Muslim community grew out of this student society. I had grown up helping my mother cook for the students during Ramadan and going to Friday prayers at the university. So, imagine my surprise when during my first week as a student there, when I walked into the prayer room with my headscarf in my hand to pray before my next lecture started, I was kindly informed by one of the ‘brothers’ there that the laundry room was across the hall. Really?! Furthermore, when I signed up to be a member of the student Islamic society, I was repeatedly asked if I was a convert.
Now, I get it. I’m kinda fair skinned and I have an American accent thanks to my 15 years of schooling, but seriously? There are Muslims of every shade, creed, and kin – I was taught this from a young age and I had witnessed it when I was lucky to go on Umrah when I was younger. However, to my peers in this student society, I was somehow an ‘other,’ regarded with amusement and some suspicion. I was already in the minority because I didn’t cover my hair like most of the other women there, but I still dressed modestly.
I don’t understand how we can ask people to not be judgmental of us, as say an Arab American, or a British Muslim, when a lot of the time we do nothing but judge our own peers.
‘Fellow Arabs’ I met at university treated me pretty much the same, so apart from a few good girlfriends that I ended up making in the Islamic Society, I kept my distance. It saddens me to say, but over the years, I’ve pretty much received judgment and criticism when I’ve met other Muslims and Arabs. The Muslims I meet give me shit for not covering my hair; the Arabs I meet give me shit because I speak Arabic with a bit of an accent. The Muslims I meet give me shit for wearing jeggings; the Arabs I meet give me shit for dating when they are doing the same thing themselves. The Muslims I meet give me shit for not fasting anymore during Ramadan and, weirdly enough, some Arabs I met recently laughed at me for saying ‘Inshallah’ when I was saying goodbye to them and hoping to see them again soon, as if I did something cute and childish.
I’m torn. I don’t understand why I’ve essentially gotten nothing but judgment and criticism from both of these groups that I identify with. Hell, I even get hassle from my own family for being ‘too Western!’ Sure, I’m probably different from your typical Libyan woman who grew up in Tripoli, but so what? I was born and raised in London and I’m proud of what I am. We live in a global, multicultural, beautiful mish-mash, melting pot of a society, and I’m glad for it. In my limited experience, I’ve been met with mostly judgment and criticism from both camps — and you know the kind of petty criticism I mean: the hijabi who is criticized for wearing too much makeup or the young woman who is deemed ‘loose’ for going out dancing with her friends. I don’t understand how we can ask people to not be judgmental of us, as say an Arab American, or a British Muslim, when a lot of the time we do nothing but judge our own peers.
I don’t judge my hijabi friend for wanting to wear a black abaya around town nor do I judge another friend for having a baby with someone she’s not married to because you know what? To each their own. Everyone will live his/her life however makes them happy and everyone’s adherence to their faith or cultural identity is for them to decide. So, for now, I’m happy with my mix of girlfriends (including no Arabs and 2 Muslims) because you know what else? They don’t give a damn about what I’m wearing.