Pakistani, Muslim and Canadian — We Belong Here, Even Though Sometimes It Feels Like We Don’t
By Zehra Kamani
Photo © franbafaluy/Twenty20
Jun 28, 2021
I’m a Pakistani Muslim Canadian, and I have often felt like I’m standing out.
But it goes beyond a feeling, because I’ve historically been singled out.
I’ve experienced being othered as a child, as an adult and as a parent. At each stage of life, I’ve not been immune to systemic racism.
When I look back on my childhood, I’m left with a long list of memories — events that never should have taken place at all.
Charline Grant's experience in the Ontario school system has been full of intolerance. Here's her story.
‘Don’t Play With Her’
When I was in Grade 4, I remember a time when I was playing outside with my friend after school.
A woman passed by and yelled, “Don’t play with her!”
My friend had blond hair and light skin, and I was the darker-skinned girl wearing a hijab.
"In Grade 6, I was dubbed 'towel head' for most of the year by one of my classmates."
I began to wonder how much better it might be to be more like my friend.
In Grade 6, I was dubbed “towel head” for most of the year by one of my classmates.
He was just joking, I thought to myself. He’s the class clown. I didn’t call him out for being racist until months later, when I finally understood his nickname was not just a joke.
In Grade 7, when my dress got stuck in the chain of a narrow escalator, a well-meaning stranger stopped to help, asking those around me, “Does she speak English?”
For quite a while after that moment, I consciously suppressed speaking Urdu, my beautiful mother tongue. Instead, I’d opt to amplify my English voice in public so that others could hear me.
" ... I consciously suppressed speaking Urdu, my beautiful mother tongue"
By Grade 8, I was beginning to withhold details about myself. There was a class poll conducted on diversity, and I pretended that I did not know what country my parents were from.
Instead of owning my Pakistani heritage, I plead ignorance. And in some ways I’ve held the shame from that moment ever since, which is why I hold on to my roots much more tightly today.
On the Job
While some may choose to brush off the above as childhood indiscretions and plucked from a different time, these attitudes continued to prevail into adulthood.
Several months into my first job out of university, my employer joked that I was hired as the “token Muslim.”
"While some may choose to brush off the above as childhood indiscretions and plucked from a different time, these attitudes continued to prevail into adulthood."
I laughed politely.
“I thought I was hired out of merit,” I replied with a smile.
In the recent past, someone felt emboldened to tell me to my face that I was their token diversity hire.
How I Dress
My mother wears a hijab and a shalwar kameez, a traditional Pakistani dress, on a daily basis. I love our traditional dress. I love the different fabrics and designs, and I love matching my hijab with each outfit.
As a child, though, I loved it only selectively. I avoided stepping into a Walmart to pick up groceries after attending the mosque for fear of being gawked at while donning a shalwar kameez or an abaya in public.
" ... I am more than just the hijab I wear as a symbol of my faith."
I have worn the hijab since I was eight. I was often the only hijabi in a crowd. I worked hard to prove myself so that others could see me for my intelligence, my skills, my work ethic, my honesty, my kindness — because I am more than just the hijab I wear as a symbol of my faith.
At the same time, I worked hard because I knew that I also represented the values imparted to me by my faith at a higher level.
I Am Canadian — And Pakistani, And Muslim
I was born and raised in Canada. I have experienced these microaggressions and internalized these insecurities for much of my life. Even so, I have remained unapologetically Muslim and have learned to embrace my Pakistani heritage as I began to encounter others who carried themselves and their cultures with pride.
I, too, wanted to imbue that confidence in all spheres of my life, not only in settings where it is easy to do so.
I now have an 18-month-old daughter. I read books to her about diversity. We read Urdu vocabulary books, books that showcase characters immersed in Pakistani culture, and books that illustrate girls wearing the hijab.
"These tragedies, these acts of violence, the overt and subtle racism — these are our collective wounds."
I am doing a small part in her young life to foster an admiration for her Muslim and Pakistani identity. But one can only go so far with books, in much the same way that one can only go so far with mere words of solidarity.
The Pakistani Muslim family that was a target of a harrowing hate crime in London, Ontario that erased three generations may just as well have been my family.
It was pure chance that determined whether tragedy would unfold in their lives, in my life, or in the lives of my friends and family. These tragedies, these acts of violence, the overt and subtle racism — these are our collective wounds. There is a very profound meaning behind the verse in the Quran that reads: “whoever kills a soul … it is as if he has killed all of humanity.”
Want to know how to raise anti-racist kids? Kearie Daniel believes that it's important to look in the mirror first. Read about that here.
Will My Daughter Share My Experiences?
I grew up so fiercely proud of Canada’s diversity. I sang songs in Remembrance Day choirs while wearing a bright red poppy under my white hijab.
I watched fireworks with awe and dressed in red and white every Canada Day. I have memories of tapping maple syrup from the trees, going skating on the frozen pond and happily claiming “I’m from Canada” on trips overseas.
These are experiences that I am excited to share now with my daughter. But the reality is that Canada is not immune to the bigotry that plagues other countries, even as it welcomes immigrants from around the world with open arms.
"The terror inflicted by some is not enough to tear down any part of my identity."
More and more, I am beginning to wonder whether my daughter’s experiences as a visible minority, whether she chooses to wear the hijab or not, will involve more than just microaggressions. I wonder how many generations it will take until we will truly feel comfortable in our skin, wearing our garments, and displaying our devotion to our faith here at home.
And yet, there is no other place I would choose for my family to practice our beliefs and uphold our values. The terror inflicted by some is not enough to tear down any part of my identity. I feel stronger as a Canadian, more faithful as a Muslim and prouder of my Pakistani heritage than before.
And I intend to do what I can to help my daughter celebrate her diverse roots and unify them as part of a single identity. My hope is that the people she encounters in her life will also do the work to support her through this and appreciate the many strong roots that flourish here on Canadian soil.
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