The Crucible Within: A Muslim Woman in Hong Kong - Fatima Qureshi
No one teaches you anything about what identity means when you’re a brown and Muslim woman growing up in a Westernized society. The other day, I hosted an online poetry event in Malaysia where people of all stripes and backgrounds told quirky tales about their cultures or paid tributes to the heroes that defied colonization in Asia.
When they asked me to write some verses, I froze. I couldn’t think of a single story to tell not because I don’t have just one but a concoction of self-hate and a slew of fragile insecurities. In body image, in intelligence and, well, in body image again - the Eurocentric standards versus family expectations versus personal choice are the only battles I fought quietly from my teenage life. I wasn’t anything more than just another immigrant girl on the peripheries.
I’m part-Pakistani, part-Turkish, and full immigrant in a city undergoing a shift of government: Hong Kong. During the handover from the British colonial administration to China, with major freedoms and liberties protected under the city’s own mini constitution, the Basic Law, our family fell nowhere in that groundbreaking change of politics in Hong Kong. South Asian immigrants, most of whom directly descended from ex-officers and militiamen from the colonial government, didn’t care much for the shift except for making a living off of a new hiring policy under the new government.
Desi and hijabi, I was taught that my only goal was to get a simple education, married to a simple man and tend to his children. The burden of representation split me into two halves: a progressive Muslim girl in school and a God-fearing daughter at home. To my extended family, I used to stand as the best example of what a brown kid is expected of. There wasn’t a relatable TV show that made me wonder, hey, I’m not alone in struggling to sew the thread of these conflicting cultures. Or any Muslim friends that provided shelter from the schisms of what I am and what I’m forced to be. This happened mostly around the early days of Facebook in ‘08 making an exciting appearance in our lives as this guaranteed glue for people like me and the possibility to communicate faceless.
In my pursuit of community and compassionate friendships, I stealthily thrusted myself into the internet universe and found a treasure trove of posts, pages and people who shared my stories of non-belonging in time and space. Of course, no one was from Hong Kong but quite a few in Hong Kong took my hand to see what’s beyond the borders of my city which I once thought could never exist without parental access. Twitter turned into my primal medium for radical political change.
Some would call that era the dawn of netizens, where they foster a new political identity as part of the millennial generation who like to be at two places at the same time. The extension of myself became more and more digitized; everything and anything I talked about to friends in real life was based on Twitter and Reddit threads - memes, gifs and viral posts. Social movements, cyber-activism and group-chat communities paved the way for my radical socialist politics today. In all honesty, it was a challenge to translate my positions into reality and direct action. Upon discovering my ‘Bush did 9/11’ conspiracy confirmations - which, for the record, was pure banter - they stripped me off all social media sites to silence my living-room activism which to them was at complete odds with who I was in the flesh.
And so, the first wave of self-esteem growth fell off by the waysides. There was no way to resist and punch back. Brown Muslim women reading this would resonate with the sheer fear of being outed or caught red-handed engaging with the opposite gender or revealing your face on social media. Down to the very last piece of my trail online, I ended my virtual adventures of my up-and-coming digital persona and reverted to the one-dimensional self that said nothing and saw nothing.
There are no others, and at the same time, there are many others different from me. For someone who only existed on the screen, I had a series of breakdowns and attempts on my life because I assumed I was not capable to exist with pride and sturdy self-esteem of being in my shoes and in my family without the possibility of getting hurt and humiliated by the very people who raised me denied me the right to self-expression. Whether it came from a culture of unquestioned patriarchy or a misinterpretation of women’s role in Islam, I hit a major snag in my personal growth up until I turned 20.
As I write this, without a clear structure of where I’m going with my story, it’s beginning to show me how our generation’s struggle with shaping our identities in conjunction with our inherited pain as a diaspora disconnected from our society at large. In my case, it’s the futility of ‘say what you mean, mean what you say, but don’t say it mean’ - all done virtually but in real life, it came with a lot of baggage and uncertainty of my Islamic identity. And that will remain the same for all time to come.
Fatima Qureshi is a Pakistani-Turkish journalist born and raised in Hong Kong. Currently based in Malaysia, she writes and produces podcasts on current international affairs and underreported social issues with a sharp focus on immigration, power politics and activism.