As a Muslim and as a Shia I often feel as if I live in an environment where I have to keep quiet about my faith and spirituality. Within Muslim circles, talking about being Shia is looked upon as inciting sectarianism and division and has lead to the further marginalization of Shia Muslims. In larger, secular circles, the mere mention of faith is seen as backwards and as a sign of intellectual inferiority. I’m tired of both kinds of silencing. Especially in a climate of islamophobia and anti-Shiism, I feel it’s crucial that I am vocal about my identity and refuse the pressure to be ‘acceptable’ by staying silent.
There’s a colonial history of coloured peoples made to feel as if they are lesser because of the beliefs and practices they hold – that they are backwards, uncultured, uncivilized, or in the words of our current prime minister “barbaric”. Being a student in Eurocentric academia, I am faced with a general assumption that spirituality has been “debunked” and those who continue to have faith (no matter what culture they’re from) are behind the times – that we should all think like the White Man now thinks.
This is a legacy of colonialism and empire. There are countless examples of this: from the way indigenous communities on Turtle Island were banned from practicing the potlatch, to the greasing of the gun powder cartridges used by Muslim and Hindu sepoys in the British army with pig and cow fat (which incited India’s First War of Independence in 1857), to the banning of headscarves and niqabs in France, and to the extremely racist and islamophobic rhetoric of New Atheists like Bill Maher and Richard Dawkins who continue to paint Muslims as “savages” in direct opposition to “liberal values”. Our beliefs and practices are seen as ignorant and irrational.
As a Shia, I have also often faced many misconceptions and judgements at the hands of fellow non-Shia Muslims. There is also a long history of anti-Shiism backed by ‘Muslim’ states. Many of these anti-Shia states are also closely allied to Western imperialism. Saudi Arabia, the gulf countries, Pakistan (my own country of birth), are places where Shia mosques, Shia professionals, and Shia communities are targets of severe violence.
I don’t want to be silenced as a Muslim. I don’t want to be silenced as a Shia.
Simply saying “Yes, I am Muslim. Yes, I am Shia. Yes, I believe in a prophet, his family, and a holy book” feels like an act of defiance and resistance.
Right now it is Muharram, one of the most important months for Shia Muslims. My community goes in to mourning. We wear black. We remember the legacy of Muhammad’s family – most of whom were starved and killed after his death in the plains of Karbala for refusing to pay allegiance to the tyrant leader, Yazid. Many of us identify with these stories, the characters of these stories, the messages of resistance, resilience, of social justice and resisting tyranny and oppression.
Zainab, the granddaughter of the Prophet and the matriarch of the family, had her veil and the veils of all the women in her family physically ripped from them the same night that almost all the men and boys in her family were brutally massacred. Zainab, along with the prophet’s great grandson and the remaining women and children were then dragged in chains through the streets of Kufa, whipped, taunted, and humiliated. Yet she rose resilient, refused to be humiliated into silence, and spoke with such strong words that she shook the very foundation of Yazid’s empire, which eventually led to his downfall. I have learned of this story from childhood. Every Muharram, I hear it again.
At a time when bigots would love to see me humiliated by forcibly removing my headscarf, I identify with Zainab’s story and it gives me strength to know that my history has examples of resilient woman who stood up for themselves, who spoke against oppression at the hands of tyrannical men, who lead revolutions and created social change.
I don’t need white liberal feminism. I have my own stories. I have matriarchs in my bloodline. And I will tell these stories and continue to hold fast to them, even if they make white liberalism uncomfortable.