Ottawa·Point of View

Why bling is my thing

Shelina Merani had a tough time as an immigrant child new to Canada. Outrageous clothing helped. But when she converted to Islam, she felt the need to tone it down. Now that she's embarked on a new career as a comic, the bling is back.

An Indo-Canadian Muslim comic's on-and-off love affair with sparkles

Shelina Merani now owns a number of eye-catching shoes, purses, scarves and other accessories. (Christine Maki/CBC)

My earliest childhood memory is getting off a plane in London, England in 1974. We had escaped the upheaval in East Africa brought on by Ugandan president Idi Amin, targeting East Indian communities. My grandparents started their new life in England, in a refugee camp. And shortly afterwards, my parents and I started ours in Canada.

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The first gift my grandfather gave me before sending us off to the New World was a pair of red patent go-go boots. I didn't realize it then, but there was a message in that shiny footwear: Be yourself. You don't have to fit in.

Over the years, I found myself buying all sorts of shoes and boots to replicate what I felt wearing that first red pair. When I became a mother, I even went so far as to get mini Doc Martens for my two-year-old — in red, of course. 

A photo of Shelina Merani in the days before she wore some of the bling seen in the case above. (Christine Maki/CBC)

A tough slog

But I'm getting ahead of myself. First, we had to make our way to Calgary, where my parents arrived with four children in tow, and without English skills. They began slogging away at minimum wage jobs to provide for the family.

With the culture shock of having to apologize Canadian-style 24/7, my East Indian family held onto remnants of what was familiar. They had definite opinions about how I, as their only daughter, should act and dress. But, they also passed on my older brothers' baggy hand-me-downs, including their bell bottoms. I was 30 years ahead of my time and confused. 

Watch Shelina Merani's story of fleeing Uganda, and the message her grandpa gave her with that first pair of shiny shoes 1:17

So, I rebelled and retreated into books, art, music, fashion and performance. I wanted to look and be unique, cool and authentic. For me, that meant refusing to wear East Indian clothes, even on special occasions.

In fact, I even felt embarrassed when my mum would sometimes wear saris in public. Seeing how Bollywood actress Priyanka Chopra rocks them, I would consider wearing a sari today if the government paid for tummy tucks.

A different turn

Destiny took a turn when I converted to Islam in 1994, a spirituality that brought healing and landed me on the no-fly list. 

People ask if I converted for love. Well, how else was I supposed to impress my husband? I discovered a newfound respect for the culture that invented shawarma, among other things. The Muslim community however, sent me a clear message: Conform. Fit in.

Shelina Merani owns a number of headscarves with fun patterns and patches, including this moose-themed one. (Zach Jama)

Faced once again with everything I had fought growing up, I went through a Cat Stevens moment of renouncing my identity. Luckily, I didn't grow a beard, although it would have been possible. Indian women are hairy.

I started dressing very conservatively, and kick-started the process of disappearing by not drawing attention to myself. I later learned that nothing in Islam said I couldn't be unique. But it was actually comedian Steve Martin who brought me slowly back to living out my grandpa's message. 

Comic Shelina Merani uses humour to try to change stereotypes about Muslim women 1:03

Steve Martin meets 'Muslimness'

In 2013, I started doing standup comedy and was inspired by Martin's advice to kick it up a notch on stage by dressing the part. Reflecting on the stereotypes out there of the submissive Muslim woman, I wanted to turn that on its head and get people to look beyond my "Muslimness."

I set out to draw my audiences into what we have in common. And, what better way than by wearing funky head scarves with patches, skulls, pandas, horses, peace signs and, of course, moose — as in Moooselim?

An eye-catching bag for every occasion. (Christine Maki/CBC)

My reply to questions about what my headgear is called was simple: "Brace yourself, it's hard to pronounce. It's called a 'scarf.'"

For every gig, I now rocked a pair of shoes with bling, patches, fur, eyes, and things you just don't want to imagine. I have purses in the shape of a ghetto blasters, phones, cameras and monsters. Even my car headlights have eyelashes.

Some of Shelina Merani's bling. Note the red-scarved mini-me of Merani in the compartment middle-left. (Christine Maki/CBC)
Even Shelina Merani's car has accessories. Note the eyelashes. (Shelina Merani)

The downside to this fashion-forward transformation was getting even more profiled at airports, but I was ready to take on airport security. I knew my rights and wasn't breaking any laws, apart from crimes against fashion.

I even had a necklace made with a mini-me, a lucky charm to carry during therapeutic massages. (I mean pat-downs.)

My teenaged children were horrified at my new-found style, or what they termed my "she-jabi" mid-life crisis.
Shelina Merani has designer plans for her garbage cans, inspired by this pic. (Submitted)

Finally, my son, fed up, challenged me to dress "normal" for one month. Which I did. My revenge was to get him to dress differently too — by no longer wearing NBA basketball jerseys. He got my point. We were both miserable.

I explained to my kids that I was just going through the process of becoming more "me." And, I hope I inspired them to fully embrace their Somali-Indo, Canadian, and Muslim identities.

Today, I am no longer embarrassed by my culture, order chai lattes with pride and am on the prowl for my next unique purchase.

Get ready, City of Ottawa trash collectors: I have been eyeing a new Louis Vuitton garbage can.

When she's not performing standup at local and national comedy clubs, Shelina Merani works in union communications. She'll be on stage at the Halifax and Winnipeg Comedy Festivals in late April and early May.