Sunday, May 19, 2013

THE QUEST FOR IDENTITY AND THE FIGHT AGAINST STEREOTYPES


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!

13 comments:

Emmy said...

Hi Meera, Thanks for sharing this book. I would love to read it and I probably will very soon. I can relate to Amal having a strong Indian heritage yet living so far away from India. I was on my own identity quest not to long ago. My mom's side of the family is Muslim, and I even work a hijaab once to experience it, see if I like it... of course I was picked on and made fun off! Then there was the phase where I read India's history, tried to wear only Indian clothing, I guess being far away from your culture and your heritage, even if you were not born there yet your family holds strong ties to is difficult. I know I had a hard time, sometimes I still do, I long to walk the streets that my ancestors walked, maybe someday I will? I can not express just how much I absolutely loved this blog. So relate-able and thought provoking. This may very well inspire my next blog. cheers xo

I HEARD YOU said...

I really liked the fact that someone took time to open about this topic to decipher our cultural identities. Howsoever modern we try to pretend ourselves, there is still no backing away from this so-called "cultural aspects of our life". Frankly, I am a bit a narcissist on these kind of issues(being about the same age as your daughter) but I have to admit that you have opened up this burning question about my culture. What was it? And was it limited only to our dressing sense? Because as far as I know every culture tries to make us better human beings; nothing more, nothing less.
And You have very smartly put three issues in one post and it is umm..clever!(?). I should leave the rest for later or my comment might get lengthier than your post even!

Rhapsody said...

Namaste......
There are many things i can say to the post because fighting stereotypes has become par for the course of living in this world of people who choose to remain ignorant because it suits them comfortably.

The best summation I can lend that fits this dilemma is, "what others think of you is not your business, what YOU think of YOU is."

Meera Sundararajan said...

@ Emmy glad that you could relate to it .I look forward to reading your next post on the same topic.

@ I heard you, you I understand your question about culture. It is debatable as each person describes it differently! However as you say, culture works on making us better human beings surely, but culture also wants everyone to blend in and not "stand out" by being different!

@ Rhapsody Phoenix, you are spot on- what others think of us is not our business but surely what we think of ourselves is certainly our business!

anilkurup said...

Meera, this is a wonderful post.
As it is in your marriage my wedlock was with a girl from another religion or caste. I, having born into a family that is Hindu and she, Catholic- we have had no issues with this fantastic thing called identity, neither do our kids who both are into their twenties.
I do not understand when these Muslim folks say that wearing a hijab or a full length “grim reaper” like dress enforces their identity. What identity crisis do they go through? How many identities should one have/ Let us say beginning with a Tamil identity for instance, then a south Indian identity, then a religious identity, an identity based on caste, then a national identity. Goodness me what are we talking about?
True there is something called culture and heritage but the subject of culture enhances or is polished only with imbibing what is good in another. Imagine if India was locked like the Forbidden City and centuries of isolation!
What should you first be-a good Muslim, Hindu, Jew, Christian or Pagan? I guess being a good human being is in itself a great identity.
This identity crisis is more vicious when influenced by the toxin called religion.
Mercifully, I’m not and the book you mentioned, I believe from what you narrate manifests what is ailing in the Muslim world today. It is not just what they call identity, but the want to believe that their roots based on religion and its identity is superior to others. The same goes with the crass Hindutva bigots too.

I HEARD YOU said...

Blend into what? I am inclined to a more radical opinion that culture actually makes us stand-out from a crowd. Take the case of an inter-religious or even inter-caste marriage. It is surely nowadays no big deal but you have to admit it still provokes an eye or two. If there was no culture, such differences would hardly be there. Also I would like to argue upon the fact that it is the culture that creates divide in the first place. Hindus have it in the form of caste system - Brahmins, kshatriyas...muslims as shia or sunni. So where's the idea of singularity through culture?

KParthasarathi said...

What Rhapsody said and which you endorsed is ideal.Nevertheless there are pin pricks in day to day life like the risk of wearing a very mini short in public transport in a country like ours.Certain amount of discretion cannot be said as undesirable.A balance is always preferable to avoid disconcerting outcomes.

Meera Sundararajan said...

Yes, I HEARD YOU, culture has its negative implications. But it also gives most people a sense of rootedness that makes them feel very secure. It is this thing that is called "blending in" . Few people would like to be different- it takes a certain amount of courage to do that! ( And thanks for coming back and keeping the debate alive)

@ Anil, in today's world muslims face a lot of biases. And most of this is because of some fanatics who use religion to get back at the world. The hijab is like the Indian Sari, I guess for a Muslim woman. It is a matter of choice whether one wants to wear it or. A Sari is a rather impractical dress these days but I still wear it when I go for international conferences ( along with Bindi and flowers if I can manage it) just because I want to state among all the women in trousers that I am an Indian woman. I know, representing India is more than wearing that six yards of cloth. But it is a sort of symbol that I like to flaunt. I guess it is the same with muslims. As a relgion Islam strives to reatin relgion at the core of its culture- therefore we do not see local adaptations like Christianity has been able to establish. For e.g muslims still use Arabic names. Often Tamil muslims find it extremely difficult to write and pronounce their own names! These are probably man made obstacles that are being palmed off as relgion. Anil, India is a complicated case. As you say the identity here is a very nuanced one. It is not easy.

I HEARD YOU said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Meera Sundararajan said...

Hello Abhishek. Good to hear your name. I was not aware that we have started something we needed to complete?

SG said...

Interesting post. Just wearing a scarf fulfills her quest for identity as a person of Arab Islamic origin? How about following other basic customs to start with? Does she pray 5 times a day? At least 2 of them will occur during the school hours. Did she take out the prayer mat in her classroom, face in the direction of Mecca, and start to pray? If she had done that I would praise and appreciate her wanting to establish her identity. In my personal opinion, just wearing a scarf to school is just a show off.

Having lived in USA for many years, I have seen many like this from different groups. If you want to show your identity, then follow your religion/culture in your daily life and not just be a show off. I, being born as a Hindu and raised in India, do visit the local temple every month and celebrate religious holidays at home. I also do the annual religious ceremony of my parents’ death anniversary (thevasam). But I would never wear panchakacham and angavasthram and go to my office. That would be disruption.

Meera Sundararajan said...

HI SG thanks for your comment. I am sorry about not going into details of the story. Yes, the protagonist does her namaz five times a day, follows the fast during Ramzan etc in spite of jeering from the white crowd. I am not sure how many Tamil children would wear the pottu or vibhuti under similar circumstances. Yes, culture can be public and private but there are spaces where both meet. An Indian lady can easily wear a sari in the US if she wants to as an expression of her culture but she prefers not to. This story is not so much about Islam but about expressing one's identity in the face of a hostile environment. It is the story of courage- courage that is difficult to summon when you are only 15 or 16 years old. We married ladies in India make it a point to wear our bindis and thalis despite the state of our marriage - probably a hypocratic act - we don't do it to show off but because it is part of our culture and innate within us.

PS I am glad that you follow the Indian traditions there in the US. I can tell you many who do not!

Bhargavi said...

Just realized I had hopped into your blog just couple of days back ! I remember adding this book on my TBR list after reading this post .. :)

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