Farah Chalisa describes how her identity has been impacted post 9/11. Her parents came to America from Pakistan in search for a better life. In her story, she explains how she has been an advocate for the Muslim American community, and how change can come through bridge-building dialogue. She is an intern for MALA for Spring 2017.
I was raised with a diluted narrative. My parents presented to me a binary where America was a safe haven for immigrants, and their homeland of Pakistan, while culturally immense and aesthetically beautiful, was a foreign and sometimes dangerous land. My parents were not naive enough to believe that American society is without flaws, but they sheltered me from the prejudice and microaggressions they had experienced as new Muslim immigrants. They were grateful that they were able to raise their children in a society that was free of the burning buses, political warfare, college riots and shootings that disrupted their own educations in Pakistan. I can understand this inherent need for them to associate the United States with tolerance and progress because America did offer them the safe and opportune environment represented by Lady Liberty’s torch. For much of my childhood, I felt American and at home.
Like many other Muslim Americans, 9/11 threw my identity into confusion. I was only a second-grader but the innate feeling of belonging I’d taken for granted disappeared into media sensationalism and endless headlines vilifying people who looked like me, who came from my homeland, who allegedly preached a version of my faith; albeit a misconstrued version I did not understand or relate to. It was the rude awakening that while I was born here, America would never be a suitable answer to the question of where I was “from”.
Since then, I’ve had drinks thrown at me and been told to “go home” (to where? I’m not sure). I’ve been told Islam is a religion of “crazies” and that the hijab is as oppressive as rape. I’ve learned not to let it hurt me, but instead fuel my fire to fight back against anyone who makes me and my faith feel like we don’t belong. I won’t be defined by my religion, but I won’t let others define my religion either. Since the years following 9/11, the country has been wrought with human rights abuse masked by national security, which has compelled me to pursue a career in human and civil rights law. In college, I worked as an advocate for the Muslim American community through my role as a Student Senator and Chairwoman of our Subcommittee on Minority Student Affairs. I also created a bridge of communication between minority students and the FBI, and served as a participant on civil rights round-tables. Working both with the establishment, and against it when necessary, I am determined to find my place in the world, and to carve out a place for Muslim Americans in our communities. My parents did not come here to find the same burning buses, political warfare, and college riots they escaped. I owe it to them to strive for a better U.S.
These days, America is ceasing to be a melting pot, but is instead a teapot, a burning kettle ringing with the stark reminder that belonging is something many of us have to vouch for. There are few things that cannot be settled with a good cup of tea, but American politics wholly falls into that category. But the steam from the kettle is rising and many of us are rising with it, to stand up for Islam, and each other, and the country we were born or traveled to. I am proud to join other Muslim Americans in this journey.
I write this while listening to my mom and grandmother discuss Islam and the media. They’re no longer quiet about injustices they see in America, nor do they bite their tongue regarding the current atmosphere thick with bigotry and divisiveness. Perhaps this is what it means to finally consider a place home- to be able to unabashedly criticize the faults of a land while appreciating the opportunities it has offered and to hold tight to hope for a brighter future. Or perhaps, this is the result of never having one home- the constant cycle of comparing administrations, cultures, cycles of change; existing in a crevice between two lands close enough to have handprints on both soil, but feet hanging of the edge, unable to grasp solid ground. Regardless, there is a blessing in being Muslim American and having two cultures. There is a value in striving and surviving, proving yourself constantly in the attempt to always find the best version of yourself and your faith, and to find home in your identity, rather than in a land.