Those of you who have studied psychology would be familiar with Eric Erikson’s theory of human psychosocial development. One of the interesting stages that he describes in his theory is adolescence which he says is the period in one’s life when the quest for identity begins. All of us have gone through it ; some of us twice -once as teens and again as parents! ( Of course the later stage is probably more painful because we are often at the receiving end as emotional punching bags of the frustrations of this quest)
Can you imagine how much more complicated this identity issue becomes when you are in a different culture trying to assert yourself on one hand while attempting integration on the other?
This is what author Randa Abdl Fattah deals with in her novel “ Does my head look big in this” . Targeted at the teen reader this is the story of a Palestinian teenager in Australia who decides one fine day to start wearing the hijab. This girl, Amal is the only child of doctor parents who had immigrated to Australia even before she was born. An Australian by birth, Amal is raised there and is in every way a typical teenager having her good and bad times with friends, parents and extended family in Australia. As part of her quest for identity she decides one day to adopt the veil. For Amal, it is a personal choice –a way to define her identity as a person of Arab Islamic origin. She spends a lot of time thinking about it and finally decides to go for it. Her parents counsel her to think it over carefully because what she plans to do is not just adoption of a clothing but a way of asserting her identity. Amal’s mother who is a successful dentist who also wears a hijab tells her the consequences of taking it up – it would mark her out as a Muslim in a world that has labeled them as terrorists. It would involve more struggles in getting jobs. But Amal is firm and from then on the story is about how she deals with the prejudices of the western society –her snobbish private school , the nasty so called “popular” girls, the support of her friends and teachers to help her cope with the implications of her choice.
A very confident and academically bright student, Amal convinces her principal that wearing a head scarf is not a violation of the school uniform rules. Ofcourse, like all teenagers she has her misgivings on the first day when she walks into the public sphere wearing her head scarf. The author describes it beautifully! As she gets used to the stares, she realizes for the first time that being “covered” makes her free of being “judged” by others on the length of her skirt, the depth of her neckline and her hairstyle. She finds that she is suddenly able to connect with rank strangers simply because they also happen to be wearing the head scarf. For her, at that moment it becomes a symbol of cultural identity.
She fights stereotypes of being the oppressed Muslim girl . She defends her faith when she says that she is successful in whatever she does “because” of her faith and not “in spite” of it! She argues beautifully in passionate teenage rage about how people who resort to violence in the name of Islam don’t know a thing about the religion! Politics is different from religion she says at one point and those resorting to violence are making political statements and not religious ones. She cites example of the Israeli violence on Palestinians and the IRA violence in the UK asking why these are not branded in as acts of religious fundamentalism.
On the personal front, Amal’s family is not exactly a ghettoized one as they live in an up market multicultural neighborhood where her mother encourages her to reach out to other neighbors. A typical teenager, Amal has her rebellious moments at home arguing with her parents, her crushes on boys and her stress of having to live up to her parents’ high levels of academic expectations. Parallel to Amal’s story is that of Leila, of Turkish origin, whose parents want her to quit her aspirations of becoming a lawyer and get married. Leila’s mother is extremely conservative and thinks too much of studying is not good for girls. This is where the author gets Amal’s mother Jamila to explain about the difference between religion and culture. Jamila explains about how Leila’s mother was from a village which had a certain kind of behavior expectation from girls and this was what she was imposing on her daughter. She tells her that Leila’s mother could not read the Koran as she was illiterate and therefore went more by what the village dictates said rather what the religion advocated.
This book takes me back to my teens when I was going through similar experiences like that of Amal’s as a South Indian living in Calcutta.. I was the “Madrasi” who spoke a language that the locals could not understand. I picked up quarrels with anyone who teased me asking if I ate “idli dosas” and whether I spoke “Andu Pandu” ( their version of Tamil sounds ) at home! At home I was fighting my mother who wanted to impose the South Indian identity on me by making me wear “pavadai”, pottu, flowers in my hair and too much of gold! It was a struggle trying to come to terms with who I was and what my culture stood for! I remember feeling ashamed of my culture on one hand while being proud of it on the other.
I suppose many of the teens from Asia who are living in western countries are facing the same challenges as Amal and I faced. It is like a trial by fire. You want to integrate but you want to assert your identity too. It takes many more years and a lot of growing up before you are able to balance the two. But stereotypes are never easy to live down. It still irritates me when some North Indian tells me “ You don’t speak like a south Indian” . I mean what is a South Indian supposed to sound like? Do I have to prefix every sentence I speak with “Aiyayo”?
One has to often make that difficult choice of integration vis a vis maintaining one’s cultural identity when living in a different culture. I have relatives living in the US some of whom send their children for Bharatnatyam and Shloka classes . I also have some others relatives whose children speak no Tamil or Malayalam and do not eat any “Indian” food at home! I don’t know whose life is easier.
One does not have to practice everything that defines you culturally to actually assert your identity. I do not believe in the caste system but I cannot negate my Brahmin roots. There was a time I used to be ashamed of it taking upon me the sin of all the oppression that generations before me had imposed upon others in terms of the purity pollution issues. But today I am more comfortable with it. I do not carefully mind my Tamil language to ensure that my caste dialect does not slip out. If it does slip out and people want to stereotype me then it is their problem- not mine!
I wonder how it is for my daughter who is the child of an interreligious marriage. She has negated religion from her list of identity descriptors. But people still want to know what her religion is. Some of them assume that she is Christian after hearing her surname. Both groups annoy her. I try to tell her that religion may be unimportant to us but for many others it is an important parameter of identity. One has to understand that and deal with it. But I think in other ways she is she is more grounded as she has not had that many upheavals in her cultural environment. The India of today is more integrated than it was when I was growing up. One is not classified as “North Indian” or “ South Indian”. The IT sector has made the South a “cool” place to live and work in . There are more inter marriages and more children like her.
However that does not reduce the “teenage angst”- the frustration of not knowing what or who you are. As a mother I have in recent times had to deal with a lot of “Whys”. I don’t know at what point you reason it out and what point you assert your authority as a parent on some issue. Sometimes her logic is more sound than mine. When I tell her not to wear shorts while taking public transport as there is no telling what kind of creeps travel in them, she in turn asks me why then do I post messages on social networking media saying “ My dress will not be influenced by a man’s inability to control his behavior”. I have no answers. She is as stubborn as I was when I was her age.
Life has come back to me as a full circle! I seem to now have again the job of dealing with the issue of MY identity –as a mother and as an idealist. I may think that I will NOT deal with these issues the way my mother did but every time I open my mouth these days I hear my mother speak!