A candid conversation on race, religion and culture…
WHAT ARE YOUR BACKGROUNDS?
MARYAM – I’m Nigerian, I’m from a big tribe in the Yoruba part of Nigeria.
MALAK – I’m Sudanese and I live in Abu Dhabi.
ADNA – I’m Somali and I’m from Sheffield.
SABRINA – I’m half Yemeni, half Zanzibarian. I’m from Leeds.
FAIDAT – I’m Yoruba Nigerian and I’m from London.
WHAT DOES BEING A BLACK MUSLIM HIJABI MEAN TO YOU?
ADNA – It means a lot to me, it’s my identity. My religion is very important to me, it’s my source of comfort. So is my race. I think the black Muslim community goes through a lot of difficulties, but we’re really strong, we’re diverse and I love being a black Muslim.
MALAK – We do go through a lot of struggles. But at the same time, there’s a lot of perks of having a mixed identity. We aren’t what you think of when you think of a stereotypical Muslim woman. We’re more than that. Sometimes that’s not always a good thing. Arab Muslims look down on you and you feel like you aren’t part of their group and then non-Muslims will exclude you from their group. So you can’t really identify with either – that’s one drawback. I am Sudani so I’m a black Arab. Other Arabs don’t even think of us as Arabs, they think of us as just black. Black people don’t think of us as black, they think of us as Arab. Some Sudanis themselves won’t identify with being black. But we are both black AND Arab. We need to celebrate who we are.
MARYAM – I think the problem starts when you differentiate from each other. At the end of the day, we are all Muslims and I feel like the way the media stereotypically broadcasts our differences segregates us. We need to stop the segregation and think of ourselves as one.
MALAK – Totally. Like, why do we need to fit into a mold? Why can’t we be multiple things?
MARYAM – Society has given us a stereotypical, narrow view.
ADNA – When it comes to black people a lot of Arabs and Asians are surprised that they are even Muslim. I don’t know why people separate being black from being Muslim. If you look at the history of Islam, the first person to say the athaan was Bilal RA, who was black.
DO YOU FIND THAT YOUR CULTURES CLASH OR BLEND WELL WITH ISLAM?
MARYAM – I think my background is a bit hypocritical. They tend to pick certain religious practices that work well with the culture and only stick to whatever suits them.
MALAK – I definitely get what you mean about picking and choosing parts of the religion that fit in with culture. That happens a lot in Sudan as well. They take religious things and add a twist of culture to it and distort it so it’s not even religious any more and it ruins the point. Sudanese culture is very patriarchal too.
ADNA – Often, culture and religion are intertwined. For example, the hijab is heavily encouraged in some cultures. Rather than it coming from an understanding of Islam, some communities shame women into wearing it and there is a lot of pressure if they don’t. This can be conflicting for people. I think you should teach people to follow the religion because they love the religion, not because of the cultural pressure associated with it.
MARYAM – It goes back to what I was saying with stereotypical labels. When it comes to marriage, for example, I was joking with my dad and I said ‘imagine if I marry a Pakistani or something’. His was response was like “if he’s not Nigerian there won’t be any culture”. I know he’s coming from a good place and there are some negatives that may come with marrying outside of your culture, but people often prioritise the culture over the religion. They forget that we’re all Muslim so as long as there is the faith that’s all that matters.
SABRINA – I’m from Zanzibar, where I come from is predominantly Muslim and I feel like a lot of people have an idea of what Islam is and how people should live on a day to day basis. I have lived in England for pretty much all of my life so I have been influenced by both cultures. As an individual, I have come to a point in my life where I don’t really live my culture, the only reason being that I don’t want this idea of “this is what you’ve got to do” when it’s not necessarily what I want to do. It’s not like I won’t carry my culture with me, I will carry it in regards to what I eat, how I speak, certain moral values but I won’t live for my culture, I don’t want to be restricted in what I do. I involve myself in a lot of sports, which is a no-no for a girl in my community. You can be Swahili and still do what you want to do. With Islam, I do struggle a lot. This is the first time I’ve worn my hijab like this for a long time. I always used to think religion and culture was one. I want to be a good Muslim and not lose those values but at the same time do what I want without going out of the boundaries, it is hard. I’m not at the point I want to be but I’m trying.
FAIDAT – I was born into Islam and I kind of took it for granted for a while. I remember in secondary school I didn’t pray much. The thing about being Nigerian is that culture feeds into religion so I would identify as a ‘Yoruba Muslim’. Yoruba people tend to mix things a lot so you’ll have a hint of Christianity, a hint of traditional cultural values and then Islam. It’s a lot to take in at a young age because you don’t know which is which. For example, I didn’t even know about halal until I came to the UK because the meat in Nigeria is prepared by the Hausa people who are predominantly Muslim. The only thing I knew was to not eat pork. Even with alcohol, I didn’t know until my Somali friends told me. I used to see Nigerian people drink alcohol at parties! When you look at Nigerian mosques, they are rarely segregated, it’s quite fluid. I was so confused growing up because when I was with my Somali friends in the UK it was so different. When I got to sixth form I started to embrace Islam more and started wearing the hijab. If you aren’t ready for the hijab, the way you perceive yourself just isn’t the best. When I wore it for the first time, I wore a white polyester one and just thought “my face looks so big, this isn’t for me”. But then I went through a hard time and became closer to God, eventually wearing the hijab again and I looked in the mirror and thought “it’s not that bad”. This prompted me to research more and I realised Islam is so beautiful. The difference between a Muslim and non-Muslim is salah so I really tried to pray five times a day but it was really hard at first. I went to uni and I only had English friends who would ask why I was always praying and why I had to do it at that specific time, I couldn’t be bothered with the questions so I stopped doing it and kept delaying it. My course at uni wasn’t for me and I went through a tough time. Eventually, I started praying again. It was a really long emotional journey. Take your time. It might take a year, it might take ten, but if you have the intention and your heart is pure, trust me you can do five times a day. It’s got to that point now where if I don’t pray I panic.
HOW DO YOU FIND THE BALANCE BETWEEN YOUR CULTURE, RACE AND RELIGION AND LIVING IN THE WEST?
MALAK – I was quite conscious of my blackness from a very early age. I grew up in Ireland and I went to a Catholic school where I was one of the few ethnic minority students. My mum told me that after a few weeks of being in school, she saw me looking in front of the mirror and examining my face and eyes. I asked her why I was brown and had brown eyes and why everyone else in school was white and had blue eyes. It’s really sad that at the age of five I was so conscious of it. A child isn’t supposed to think about things like their race and how they are different to people because of it. Our ideas of beauty are changing now but at the time it was very much “if you’re white and have blond hair and blue eyes, you are pretty and if you don’t have those things, you are not”. As a child, when I first found out about dua and how it works, I would close my eyes and make dua to be white. How sad is that? Being a black Muslim in the West isn’t easy even for children. After moving to the Middle East, I didn’t expect Arabs to be racist because we were all Muslim but there was a lot of racism. People would use Sudanese colloquialisms to insult us. Instead of saying ‘dude’ or ‘friend’ we would say ‘yazol’ and then other Arabs adopted it as a derogatory, racist term. So they would say ‘yazol’ meaning ‘you ugly black man’.When I came back to the UK to study I didn’t know what community I fitted into. Do I fit in the black community or the Muslim community, who, in the UK, are mainly Asian? How do you find yourself and find your people?
ADNA – My experience was a bit different because there were a lot of Somalis where I grew up and it was generally quite ethnically diverse. Nobody really saw my blackness as a problem. However, back in the day Somali people were made fun of. Everyone used to come for our foreheads and other features. I was very conscious of being Somali. I went to a school where it was predominantly Asian and white. There were very few black people and even fewer Somalis. I remember not having a Somali friend until I was about 18 and now most of my friends are Somali. When I turned 18 I realised that I really missed my culture and I wanted to identify. I started listening to Somali music, getting involved in the community etc. Those were the best years of my life, discovering my culture and how beautiful it was. Having a diverse group of friends is important but it’s equally as important to have friends from your own background or culture. It just gives you a sense of belonging and comradery – they could understand me in ways that my friends from other backgrounds couldn’t.
MALAK – It just shows the people you surround yourself with make all the difference.
ADNA – At times it can be a struggle being visibly Muslim. You feel judged by both Muslim community and the outside world. However, practising my religion gives me a sense of peace and comfort.
MARYAM – I’m someone who does what I want. I don’t care what my friends say about it, even if we’re getting ready to go out and my makeup is done and the Uber is outside, I still have to pray. I am not stepping out until I pray. You can book another Uber. It’s just about discipline.
MALAK – Everyone struggles, my struggle is the hijab. I’m trying to get to a point where I feel confident enough to wear it how it should be worn, but I’m not there yet.
SABRINA – That’s the thing though, is there a way it should be worn? It’s this idea of it having to be worn a certain way for you to be accepted. For me that’s not it, as long as your imaan is there and you believe in God and the Prophet that’s all that matters. I only wore it like this today because as my mum says, “when you join a group of people try to be like them”.
ADNA – My mum says the same thing. My struggle is mostly what I wear, there’s this notion that jeans and hijab are not compatible. My friends are very modest with their dress e.g they wear abayas. One time, we were going to London in the summer and I asked my mum if my outfit was okay – it was jeans and a turtleneck. My mum said that you know the girls you are going with are all in abaya. It’s so true because next to them I would have felt out of place. I always see comments online like “what’s the point of wearing hijab if you’re going to wear jeans” which is disheartening as that’s quite judgemental.
SABRINA – When I took my hijab off and wore my hair in braids, people would say “oh she’s gone bad, she’s taken it off”. When I covered my hair in a turban style people would question that as well.
MALAK – People will always question it. It sucks because sometimes I hear my friends talk about girls who used to wear hijab and no longer do and they say stuff like “oh look at her, I can’t believe she’s taken it off”. I have those struggles so if I take it off will they say those things about me? Someone will always have something to say.
DO YOU FEEL REPRESENTED IN THE MODEST FASHION WORLD?
FAIDAT – The first modest fashion blogger I heard of was Dina Tokio. I was so excited when she got a show with BBC Three, even though she wasn’t like me I really supported her because she was on this big platform and she was a hijabi.
ADNA – I think she was the poster girl for hijabis and I used to watch her tutorials. When I saw her on YouTube, she just inspired me. There was Basma K as well as Halima Aden now.
MARYAM – Even though these influencers always say they don’t aspire to be role models, in a way you automatically are. Even though they have their own struggles.
MALAK – It’s kind of reassuring to see people we look up to go through those struggles too.
ADNA – I am disappointed by the lack of representation of black Muslims. I think the industry is oversaturated and there is definitely racism and colorism. It’s always Arab or Asian girls being represented.
FAIDAT – It’s funny because if two Muslim girls were walking down the street and one was Arab and one was black, people would feel more threatened by the Arab one because they don’t expect black people to be Muslim.
MARYAM – When I started wearing hijab people were shocked, they thought I was Christian. I think it’s changing though, there’s a bit more representation but I think they just drop ONE black hijabi on a runway and make enough money off it.
FAIDAT – I saw an advert looking for models and I applied and they said they only wanted one black girl for diversity. So literally, you’re just filling a quota , it shouldn’t be like that. That’s not fair.
MARYAM – I remember on my results day at school there was a camera man and I had a hijab on at that point and he wanted me to be in the picture and stand at the front.
SABRINA – I’m mixed. There’s that Arab part of me that’s not accepted because I’m visibly black, I’m dark and my hair isn’t as silky. And on the other side, I’m too light, within my own community I’m getting grouped here and there. So where do I belong then? It’s hard to establish yourself. I don’t personally identify as Arab because of the experiences I have had with Arab people pushing me away so I’m a proud African. However, within the African side they think I don’t get as much racism because I’ve got “light” skin. I’m black, it doesn’t matter.
ADNA – That’s why being a black Muslim is so unique. The struggles we face are so different to black non-muslims, but they are also different to Arab or Asian Musims.
MALAK – Yeah, when people say “the black community” that’s so vague and general. There are so many different communities within “the black community”. A black Christian and a black Muslim are completely different, you can’t put us all under the same umbrella.
MARYAM – Black Muslims are so beautiful and they don’t even recognise that – black people in general. What Western people tend to do is culturally appropriate our culture. They see something beautiful but they won’t admit it, they make it look like they created it. In high school, I used to put concealer on my lips then underline them because they were too big. I made my lips smaller. I went on Facebook recently to find this girl who used to bully me about my lips asking if anyone had appointments for lip fillers! Now you are paying for something I had naturally and I used to question myself – why did god create me with these big lips? Now everyone has big lips.
ADNA – I agree, it took a person who wasn’t black to have big lips and a curvy body for it to be seen as beautiful. Women with curvy bodies are policed. It’s sexualised. If you’re skinny, you are seen as prepubescent and you don’t have a womanly figure. Serena Williams is considered masculine. So no matter what body type you have women are always judged.
SABRINA -I feel like in our generation there are so many trends. One moment you’ll find this culture as a trend and the next minute it’s something else. I feel like the afro is now a trend and natural hair etc. I personally don’t like it. For a certain time and period it will be a trend and then you’re going to move on and it won’t be relevant anymore. Why can’t we just accept things as they are? I don’t like this whole natural hair craze – natural hair has been around forever.
MALAK – Serena’s Nike catsuit was seen as inappropriate whereas if a white women wore it, it would have been okay. Why are black women’s bodies always policed? We are made to feel like WE are inappropriate.
ADNA – I don’t think there’s enough representation of dark skin Muslim women either. In Dubai modest fashion week, they had a massive backlash as they had no representation of this. The models were either Arab or South East Asian, with very light skin.
DO YOU THINK OTHER MUSLIM COMMUNITIES RECOGNISE THE BLACK MUSLIM STRUGGLE?
ADNA – There’s internalised racism within the community. If something happens in an Arab country, all the Muslims rally behind it and help. I don’t think the black Muslim community’s struggle is recognised as much in places like Mali.
MARYAM- In general with society, once people are comfortable and their family is okay, nobody cares what’s going on in the rest of the world. I always see petitions about the UK and America taking in refugees from these places. Sometimes I think well what are these rich Arab countries doing?
FAIDAT – I feel like it’s just a reflection of society as a whole. I was so reluctant to join ISOC because of this culture.
SABRINA – I joined but I dropped out. I was the only person on the committee who was black. I just felt judged and I’m not a perfect Muslim, nobody is, but I’m not that stereotypical Muslim. My views are different, my friends are different and as much as I’d love Muslim friends, because I don’t have a lot of them, I don’t feel judged around other people. I just had to step out of it. I’ve come to the realisation that, for a long time I didn’t want to be black. I just wanted to be much lighter. It got to the point where I found beauty in blackness. Now I appreciate being black and to be honest I’d love to be darker!
MALAK – The more representation there is, the easier it becomes. But representation is difficult because everyone practises differently .
MARYAM – That’s why you need to just have your own spiritual journey with God.
MALAK – Yes, because people will always judge. We do have more curvaceous bodies, it is more difficult for a curvy woman to observe modesty. People just need to cut us some slack and let people go on this journey. They place so much importance on the parts of your deen that you can see and not on the parts that actually matter.
TO BE A BLACK MUSLIM IS…
ADNA – To be a black Muslim, is to be a minority within a minority but it’s two of the most incredible things. I love being a black Muslim woman, we’re really doing big things. I love seeing black Muslim women shine.
FAIDAT – Growing up I always felt like something was missing. Inside I felt half complete. When I discovered my deen and when I started wearing hijab I felt complete. Islam is the one thing that keeps me grounded.
MALAK – It’s a mixture of two of the most beautiful identities. We’re a symbol of rebellion.
SABRINA – For me it’s a journey. There’s no mold, I’m privileged to be a part of that. My journey will continue. Yes, I’m a black woman and a Muslim, but I’m Sabrina. Just being able to appreciate that at 22 is a big accomplishment I think.
MARYAM – It’s my identity and my way of life. I wouldn’t have it any other way.