Scoundrel Time

A Prescriptive Identity? Not My Birthright.

Photo by Tim Haynes

 

Identity.

I searched for it my entire life. When I thought I had it in my clutches, the slippery creature learned how to evade me; my identity changed directions, it multiplied, it forced me to look inwards and decide—is this who I want to be today?

The story of my identity began before I was even born.

On June 11th, 1943, my Muslim father was born in Hyderabad, India. On November 27, 1951, my Muslim mother was born in Mumbai, India. In 1980, my mother married my father, and she moved to the United States, where my father had already been living for several years. Three years later, on January 8, 1983, they were at a dinner party, and my mother complained of stomach pain. My father, a pediatrician, realized she was in labor. To the hospital they went, and a little after midnight on January 9th, their first child, a daughter, an American, was born.

That daughter was me.

The act of my parents leaving their own country of birth, a place located oceans and far-off lands away, a geographical distance of 8,000 miles in total, meant my destiny was to be born a child of immigrants.

Being born in the United States also meant I was born a minority. At the time of my birth, my parents lived in the cornfield-covered state of Iowa, a state predominantly white in ethnicity and predominantly Christian in religion, meaning that my Muslim, brown-skinned parents, whose mother tongues were Urdu and Guajarati, were like fallen branches sticking out of a snow-covered hill.

As a child, I was too young for it to bother me too much that my appearance differed from the majority of my classmates—the blonde or brunette Caucasian girls with skin so fair that they burned in the heat of the summer sun. In some way, my mocha skin made me feel as if I held membership to a secret club; my superhero power, the ability to appreciate differences . Later, when I was nine, my family moved to California, and I encountered people with skin types of every shade. That secret power of mine strengthened in scope, and an impulse to seek out various lifestyles, places, people, and adventures took hold.

Today, I feel grounded in my identity. I call myself a female, a liberal, an agnostic, a South Asian, an American, a writer, a runner, a social worker, a leader, a friend, a sister, a daughter, a colleague, and more.

It took me years to get to this point, to accept that every day and in every interaction I encountered, different facets of my identity would emerge to represent who I was.

Growing up, I struggled to define myself—was I Indian, or was I American? While in the United States, I was warned by my parents that I should not be too American; they were afraid I’d lose my cultural heritage. Strangers asked where I came from, because my non-white skin must mean I was not born in the United States. On family vacations to India, I was reminded that I could not pronounce Urdu or Guajarati words correctly, that my accent was too American. I cringed every time I spoke a language other than English, the language with which I have always felt the most at ease while speaking or writing.

I struggled with religion as well. While my parents raised me in their Muslim faith, I questioned it, getting into arguments with them when I didn’t want to pray or fast or attend the mosque. For years, I pondered religion, comparing the Islam with other Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Bahai, etc.); Indian religions (Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism, etc.); East Asian Religions (Confucianism, Shinto, Taoism, etc.); Indigenous religions; New Age religions; Occult religions; and more. I was drawn to the mystical power religion held over so many in this world. It shaped people’s lives, dictating their choices about whom to marry, and how their wedding and death ceremonies should be carried out. It influenced their belief in the world’s origin.  Whether Buddhism, Islam, or Christianity, the mythology found in each religion was  comparable, showing me that a thread existed among them all—connecting them to each other, connecting them to me, to the person sitting in the chair next to me. In the end, I choose a religion of no religions—I call myself agnostic.

As I grew into the adult I would become, I realized that I had the luxury to question everything and to disagree if I chose to do so.

This luxury, this privilege to become who I wanted to become, was my birthright as an American.

In the days of the Trump administration, what I fear the most is learning that this administration aims to take away those luxuries, to take away my birthright, to take away the dignity of all individuals living in this country.

On Friday, January 27th, with the issuing of the Executive Order “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States,” I learned that this President considered my identity to be prescriptive. To him, the complexity involved in my search to define who I was, to understand my own identity—who I am, what I believe, how I think—had been taken from me. My identity had been simplified, defined by my physical markers—my brown skin and my reproductive organs.

Woman.

Foreigner.

Muslim.

On that Friday night, I lay awake on top of my bed’s comforter, cozy in my apartment. I wondered what it would be like to have family members taken from me. I recalled all the lessons from grade school about the Holocaust. In 2005, I’d visited Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam and read the letters on display that her father had written at first in search of his family, and later to convey the loss of his family. I had friends whose relatives had perished in the concentration camps. My roommate came from a Jewish background. History had shown us what misery could come from the belief that a particular identity had to be isolated, alienated, and exterminated. Those whom Hitler’s government identified as Communist, Social Democrats, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Homosexuals, Jews, Gypsies, Blacks, Poles, and Slavs had experienced how a forced prescription of identity made them inferior in the eyes of the government.

Hitler’s government was not alone in this act. I recalled my social work professor, a man who provided care to Japanese-American senior citizens, alerting us, his students, to the realities of U.S.-based Japanese internment camps during that same time period. In 1942, an Executive Order forced thousands of Japanese to leave their homes for incarceration in military camps. People with as little as 1/16 Japanese blood were bound by the order, orphans with even one drop of Japanese blood were placed into the camps.

I feared for my Muslim family, even though all of my family members living in this country are U.S. citizens or legal residents. I felt guilt-ridden being thankful that my Muslim family came from India, and, fortunately for us, that country was not on the 2017 immigration-ban list. The prescriptive identity forced upon me could give me that comfort at least.

Many others were not as fortunate. After the release of Trump’s discriminatory ban, people across our nation had been separated from their families due to their assigned identities. Their identities had been “assigned” in a way that meant they were now a threat.

That night, fear poured through me.

My sister sent a message to our mother urging her not to wear her rida (a form of a hijab) while she traveled. And though I knew it was part of my mother’s chosen identity, I also suggested to her that she should consider not wearing it, for her own safety. Trump’s immigration ban had marked her, her hijab creating a big “X,” which screamed simultaneously “Muslim” and “terrorist.” Though I do not wear a hijab, nor do I identify as a practitioner of the Islamic religion, there was no denying that the immigration ban had marked me, too.

I thought about history. I thought about my Jewish friends. I thought about the Holocaust. I thought about the Japanese internment camps. A prescriptive identity had been forced on all of us. History was repeating itself.

I drifted off to sleep, heartbroken, still lying atop my bed’s comforter, sinking into it awkwardly and, like the princess in that fairy tale, feeling the pea that must be hidden beneath the mattress. But the discomfort I felt was not a lie. The chill of the air touched the bare skin of my arms.

Hours later I awoke. Out of habit, I reached for my phone and scrolled through my Facebook newsfeed, dreading what new information I would find. To my surprise, the distress I had fallen asleep with melted away. I learned that a New York federal judge had issued a stay order temporarily preventing federal agents from deporting anyone who entered the U.S. with a valid visa. I watched videos of dozens upon dozens of men, women, children, the old and the young, gathering at airports—both inside and outside terminals—to protest the immigration ban. I saw taxi drivers in New York on strike, standing in solidarity with those affected by the unconstitutional act. A video of Senator Elizabeth Warren made me tear up with pride. She joined a crowd of protestors at Logan International Airport, the airport in the state where I currently reside, and she was chanting, “We will not turn away children.”

I remembered my birthright: The United States I love. The country my parents chose to have their first child born in. The country that has given me the ability to choose my identity, to belong to a secret club and to gain a superpower, so that I can speak up.

We can learn from history.

My identity will not become prescriptive. I can be female, liberal, agnostic, South Asian, American, a writer, a runner, a social worker, a leader, a friend, a sister, a daughter, a colleague, and more.

This luxury will remain. My birthright, the ability to question, to choose—an inherently American trait at its core—will remain. The people of my country possess the same superpower as I do, and they will speak up. I put my phone down and rose from my bed.