By Aliya Vaughan
As humans, we are all united under the banner of humanity. That is our identity as a human race. Within that, we have multiple identities in terms of race, ethnicity, class, religion, etc. And in terms of religious identity, Muslims are united in faith under our declaration of ‘La ilaha ilallah, Muhamadur rasullulah.’ In the verse below, Allah commands us to protect our identity and unite together by holding onto His Guidance for humanity, as Divinely revealed in the Quran.
“And hold fast, all of you together, to the Rope of Allah (i.e. the Qur’an), and be not divided among yourselves…”
Surah Ale-Imran 3:103
The Quran shapes our main identity as Muslims, but it also influences our many other identities in life. I identify as a daughter, sister, wife, mother, auntie, neighbour, friend and colleague. But I also have other identities as a woman, who is Muslim, of a certain age who also happens to be British and white.
Some of my identities are fixed whilst others evolve as my life circumstances change and develop. Just as I get used to one aspect of my identity, a new one emerges, and I have to get used to a new kind of ‘me.’ It happened when I became a Muslim, a wife; a mother; a mother-in-law and no doubt it will happen again when I become a grandmother, in sha Allah. But I’m glad I have Islam as my constant identity to keep me grounded as it helps to reconcile all my other identities. But before I became a Muslim, I didn’t have that. Instead, many of my identities would overlap, compete or conflict with one another and give me identity complexities I didn’t want or need.
Adolescence is a stage in a woman’s life that witnesses the most rapid change of identity and is probably the most emotionally challenging. Like many young girls, I agonised over my new found identity with all the physical changes in my body and mental cartwheels inside my head. Young women have the same issues today, but probably worse since the age of the Internet and digital technology. Women are bombarded with images and societal pressure to conform to idealised standards of the female form, not just in looks but also within our roles and responsibilities in life. In a desperate drive to ‘do it all’ and ‘have it all’ (or so we are made to believe) we realise we actually can’t and so become disillusioned and depressed. And as societal trends shift, so do the prevailing identity norms and expectations of women. No matter what we do to keep up, it goes against us. We are expected to be beautiful and sexy, driven and ambitious, motherly and caring, but when we are, we are either judged for failing to meet up to impossible standards, called derogatory names or our intentions are questioned. We can never win. As a young woman, this made me so frustrated that I became defiant towards any societal expectations of me. I realised women are exploited for economic gain and convenience to the detriment of their physical, emotional, financial and even sexual health (look at the #metoo movement). It didn’t benefit me or protect me to chase these impossible ideals. Instead it became a burden. So, rather than being a slave to the many competing societal demands I decided to become a servant of Allah, and that has been my driving identity ever since. Why? Because this identity protects me in ways that my non-Muslim identity couldn’t.
“…So, rather than being a slave to the many competing societal demands I decided to become a servant of Allah, and that has been my driving identity ever since…”
None of my other identities have suffered as a result of my Muslim identity. In fact, they have become more clearly defined and finely tuned. Islam enables me to be the best of who I am without going to extremes. Moderation and balance are key and my faith ensures I get my priorities right. If I find myself becoming stressed or overworked, I have to remind myself of the identities that are most important to Allah. This helps me to ease some of the burdens I have unnecessarily imposed upon myself or have been unnecessarily imposed upon me.
“…If I find myself becoming stressed or overworked, I have to remind myself of the identities that are most important to Allah…”
As for my physical identity in public, my hijab and modest covering is the outer expression of my faith. It is also my ‘safe space’ that allows me to move freely in society without being objectified or sexualised. Hijab is also my struggle of desires (jihad al-naffs) and there is immense reward if I hold onto my identity in this regard. Sometimes when I catch a glimpse of my reflection in a shop window, my heart sinks momentarily. This is because I am not immune to society’s negative reaction and perception of Muslim women and I have internalised this myself a little, sadly. But I quickly over ride it. I may look ‘foreign’ and ‘out of place,’ and not exactly glamorous but I remind myself of the ayah for wearing an abayah and hijab.
“O Prophet, tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers to bring down over themselves [part] of their outer garments. That is more suitable that they will be known and not be abused. And ever is Allah Forgiving and Merciful.”
Surah al-Ahzab 33:59
In other translations Allah says for women to cover ‘so they will not be annoyed’ or ‘molested.’
Allah created women to have alluring qualities and for men to be attracted to that. This is life. But with that being said, men and women have a personal responsibility to ensure safeguards are put in place. A Muslim woman covers her beauty (figure and hair) to give her dignity and self-respect and to protect her from unwanted sexual comments and advances. It is for this reason that I protect my Muslim identity by wearing hijab just as much as my Muslim identity (hijab) protects me. It is also important to note here that both Muslim men and women should cover modestly and lower their gaze and protect their private parts from committing fornication, adultery or criminal acts of harassment and rape etc. Our Muslim identity is also defined not only by modesty in our dress, but also in our speech and behaviour. I’ve had to tone my character down over the years since becoming Muslim, but in retrospect it has saved me from a lot of unnecessary dramas.
The etiquettes of Islam have refined me but they have also helped to re-define me for the better and I work hard to protect that.
“And who is better in speech than one who invites to Allah and does righteousness and says, “Indeed, I am of the Muslims.”
Surah al-Fussilat 41:33
There is so much I owe to my faith identity. People may malign Muslims and the Islamic faith but we need to hold onto our true identities as we are living in a world where many identities are being lost. When we don’t have clarity and certainty of who we are and where we belong in the world, it can lead to identity conflict and confusion. This in turn, leads to social alienation, sadness and depression and at worst, suicide.
Our identity is shaped by our values and beliefs which are clear cut, but they are also versatile enough to allow for personal choice. We have a unique collective identity (Islam) which distinguishes us from other faiths, but we also have our own individual self-identities that distinguish us from other people. Within the clear-cut boundaries of Islam, we have different cultural and individual preferences in the styles of clothes we wear, the food we eat, languages we speak, social habits, sport and recreation, education, skills, abilities, interests and personality. Each one of us has our own unique identity but we share a common identity with 1.6 billion Muslims around the world.
I protect my identity as a Muslim because without it I know I would be lost. In fact, before becoming a Muslim I was, indeed lost. Now, I have a definite sense of belonging and I know my place in the world and my purpose within it. I also have a very clearly defined moral compass that guides and directs me in every aspect of my life.
I am a woman of faith. It is the first identity you notice when you see me and hopefully it is the identity that you hear when I speak and the identity you notice when I act. The whole of my identity revolves around my faith both internally and externally. Islam is me and I am Islam and I will continue to work hard to preserve it, in sha Allah.
About the author:
Aliya Vaughan has been a Muslim for 25 years and lives in the UK with her husband and children. She is a qualified life coach and author. She has recently published her award-winning children’s story ‘A Race to Prayer’ with Kube Publishing.