The following post is a collection of three open letters written by Muslim-American Brown Girls.
Hey. You’re here, and like every year, a smile will creep on my face at the thought of you.
No, not Zayn Malik.
RAMADANNNN, AYEEEE WASS GOOODDD?!
As a fair and lovely crescent hangs in the sky and pakoras suffer in the heat of the deep fryer, I embark on my religious journey to spiritual perfection. For Muslims like myself, Ramadan is the last minute project the Teacher assigns after everyone bombs the final: the saving grace. In Ramadan, I get to try myself to test how much control I have, from looking ahead and stepping the gas a little harder every time I pass Starbucks to preventing myself from Tweeting strings of colorful profanities at Donald Trump.
And I’ll be honest: I haven’t taken advantage of the month as much as I should have. Yes, I’ve fasted and performed Taraweeh prayer (the additional nightly prayers), but..that’s all I did. I didn’t devote time to understanding the religion better and strengthening my relationship with God yet, and I’m determined to change that. I write to you today to tell you that it is NEVER too late. Yes, you have classes and it’s hot out. But it never goes unnoticed by God: you are always rewarded for your struggles.
If you don’t fast, start. If you fast, look for reasons why. Don’t fast because you have to, fast because you want to make God proud of you and you want to feel for the poor and put yourself in their position. Don’t blindly read the Quran because your mom said you should, instead, try to understand it. Acquire knowledge, from the details of the beloved Prophet’s lifestyle to the Arabic alphabet.
It doesn’t matter how far along the road you are, just that you are moving forward with all your heart and soul.
(The following open letter to Ramadan is from a Shia-Ismaili-Nizari Muslim)
Well, this is awkward. Most people, most Muslims, don’t know what an Ismaili is outside of derogatory remarks and fumbled guesses at our “practices.” That, however, is rightly juxtaposed by the fact that most Ismailis don’t really have a grasp on Ramadan in any facet. Ramadan, you and I are in an awkward spot, to say the least. To make things easier, let’s just lay out the basics. Yes, I am fasting. No, my family is not fasting. No, I do not pray five times a day. No, I do not cover my head when I pray – nor have I ever been so compelled. No, I do not read the Quran as penance. I am considered heterodox by all standards expect for this fast I keep.
I am the only Ismaili I know that is fasting. Without the support system of an ummah to back you – Ramadan is harder than what is already perceived. When your entire family gets up with you at 5 a.m. to make an egregiously delicious breakfast and worship – the weight of the early morning disappears, and the will to continue with your ethical oath is strengthened and validated. I do not have this physical support system. Ismailis are Shia by sect and stress an esoteric approach to Ramadan. Holding one’s tongue and thoughts in place of holding one’s hands back from grabbing lunch. Ismailis, as far as I can equivocate, haven’t fasted in the exoteric sense, i.e. refraining from food, since the Middle Ages.
That still leaves me in an awkward spot. Where is the Ismaili community in my exoteric fast? It’s no lie Ismailis consider themselves part of the broader ummah but the ummah doesn’t always reciprocate that sentiment. This isolation is often internalized. Ramadan is very fleeting to the Ismailis of my generation.
To call oneself Muslim, yet not fast in the exoteric sense, causes much cognitive dissonance among Ismaili youth. Against these odds, this will be my third year holding an exoteric fast. So to Ramadan, I say thank you. Thank you for proving that the ubiquity of Islamic sacrifice goes beyond sectarian theological politics. Thank you for connecting me with the ummah regardless of the community’s acceptance. In spite of this strange spiritual solitary confinement, I can still understand brotherhood. Thank you for teaching me submission in all facets- esoteric and exoteric.
If Ramadan was a person and I had a chance to say one thing, it would be “I need you.”
To me, Ramadan isn’t just a month of spiritual cleansing, but one of self-reflection. One of self-awareness, self-love, and forgiveness. I await Ramadan each year because – although it may not be a significantly noticeable change- I change for the better each Ramadan. Each Ramadan allows me to reflect on not only my actions of the year but on who I am as a person. You see, for me, fasting is not only about abstaining from food and drink. Fasting is not about being hungry. For me, fasting is about self-control. It allows me to take time and reflect on who I am as an individual.
I need Ramadan because it grounds me. It allows me to forgive myself. It gives me an opportunity to change. They say 30 days of doing something makes a habit – and Ramadan is just that. Thirty days of changing into a better you. I remember growing up I never really understood when my mother said: “During Ramadan, you not only fast with your stomach – but with your tongue and heart.”
I never understood why people suddenly stopped doing so many of the things they did all year – just during Ramadan. I never understood- until now. Ramadan in a sense is an opportunity for one to develop positive traits. Each Ramadan, I focus on one negative trait I have that I want to get rid of – whether it’s cursing too much, controlling my anger, or being hurtful to myself. I try to avoid doing these things for a month in hopes of making it habitual to live without them.
Ramadan allows me to not only bring myself closer to God and my religion but myself. It allows me to learn how far I can push myself to change- it reminds me that God is all-forgiving. It reminds me that if God, a higher being, can forgive my actions, so can I. It allows me to take time out of my day and find the inner peace that brings me closer to loving my lord. Ramadan reminds me that everyone makes mistakes and everyone can receive forgiveness.
The Quran says, “O Son of Adam, even if your sins were to reach the clouds of the sky and were you then to ask forgiveness of Me, I would forgive you.” Ramadan reminds me of this.
I’ll be honest, I’m not the best Muslim out there. I have made countless mistakes – mistakes I have been so regretful of – mistakes I even found myself not being able to seek my own forgiveness for. Ramadan allows me to reflect on these mistakes, to learn from them and remember that God is all-forgiving – that I can better my actions for the future to avoid making similar mistakes again. That I need to forgive myself to better myself.
I once read a quote that till this day reflects exactly how I feel about Ramadan, it said:
“I love Ramadan because that kid who never prays, prays. That girl who never covers, covers. That guy who never fasts, fasts. Even if it’s just for a month, at lease these ‘types’ of people have tested the ‘sweetness of faith’ just for one month. And perhaps months later down in life, if their life ever becomes bitter – they’ll refer back to Ramadan and yearn for that same ‘sweetness; they sampled just that one month. You call them ‘Only Ramadan Muslims’ but I call them ‘Muslims who may only need Ramadan to change.’”
I yearn for that sweetness – I yearn for that change.
From singing and acting to drawing immaculate figurines, Saheli Khan, 11, has made her debut in the North American Broadway tour as young Anna in Disney’s musical “Frozen.” As a first-generation Indo Caribbean, with roots in India and Pakistan, she continues to pave the way for young people with similar backgrounds.
Khan has always enjoyed entertaining those around her and she continues to have the motivation to pursue her passions. In school, she always sought to lead her class in songs and she was encouraged by her parents and teachers to enroll in music and acting classes, even at a young age. These ventures fueled her passions even more.
Continue reading to learn more about her journey!
What do you like about acting the most?
I like to portray different characters. Specifically, I like playing characters who have strong personalities and those who portray a sense of bravery, especially during problematic occurrences.
As a first generation Indo Caribbean actress, how do you feel about your journey as a young Disney princess? Do you feel that you are paving the way for other Caribbean and South Asians who want to pursue similar paths?
Diversity has always been important to me, but in today’s society, I feel that most people would like to be accepted and encouraged. As a Disney Princess, I am simply helping to broaden the field for all young people to see that skin color should not matter.
What do you like about your character, Anna? Is there anything that you may dislike?
Young Anna is a ball of sunshine! She is happy, funny, and a delight to be around. Despite having a troubled childhood, she grows up to be just as joyous, but she is also courageous as she goes on a journey to find her sister. I love everything about young Anna and she truly embodies who I am as a person.
Who is your inspiration and why?
My parents are my inspiration. My mom is beautiful, loving, and she works hard without ever giving up. No matter the task, she finds a solution and keeps on going with a smile on her face. She always tells me, “Whenever you feel overwhelmed, remember whose daughter you are and straighten your crown.” And my dad is my best friend. He’s insanely funny, caring and knows all the best places to eat! My parents are exactly how I want to be when I grow up.
If you had a magic wand, what show would you do next?
I would love to be Annie on Broadway or play the lead in a series or movie.
What is the one last thing that you do before you step out on stage and the curtain goes up?
There are many things I do before I step on stage. I do fun and silly things quietly with my “Frozen” sister, Mackenzie Mercer, and play with my Anna pigtails for good luck.
What are your other passions?
I love to sing, act, and spend time with my younger cousin, Ayla. I also love to draw and color since it makes me feel relaxed. I was told I have a great ability to draw and make figurines ever since I was a child. And I love exploring new cities and eating at great restaurants with my family.
What advice do you have for young people who are just starting their careers, specifically within the field of musical theater?
To have a positive mindset, practice diligently, and enjoy every moment within the journey. I have learned that there may be some occurrences that may not take place the way that you want them to, but there’s always an opportunity to learn from them.
Aside from your career, how do you balance your schoolwork and acting?
I attend school virtually, which is essential when I am on tour. Each day I have scheduled school hours that allow me to focus and complete all school assignments. Once that is done, I have most of the day to work on extracurricular activities, go on outings, and hang out with my friends. Though performing takes a large chunk out of my day, it helps that I enjoy it, so it doesn’t feel like work.
What types of roles do you see yourself playing?
I love to play humorous characters such as young Anna from “Frozen.” I truly enjoyed this role as it captures who I truly am.
Khan’s debut marks the start of a budding career. With her array of talents and future goals, we are bound to see more of the young actress in the future and more representation of Indo Caribbeans in mainstream media. If you would like to purchase tickets for Disney’s “Frozen,” click here.
This story was published as a collaboration between Brown Girl Magazine and Reckon, a national news organization that covers the people powering change, the challenges shaping our time, and what it means for all of us.
This is a special year for Ramadan. For the first time in three years my mosque will fill to capacity, giving my community a chance to rebuild lost connections and overcome heartache. It reminds me of a simple truth: healing comes not when you expect it but when you need it.
For Muslims, Ramadan symbolizes the time of the year in which Islam’s prophet Muhammad first received the revelation of the Quran. Since Islam follows a calendar based on the monthly cycles of the moon, the start of the holy month of Ramadan is determined when a crescent moon is sighted in Saudi Arabia.
The Quran is said to have been received throughout the life of the prophet Muhammad, and Ramadan marks the days it took for him to receive its first verses. When Muhammad received this revelation, it is said that he isolated himself in a cave to reflect and devoted himself to endless worship. In the same way that Muhammad secluded himself to focus on gratitude and prayer, Muslims around the world use the time to distance themselves from daily distractions and focus on spiritual growth through a month of fasting.
Siyam in community
The Arabic word for fasting is siyam which translates to ‘be at rest.’ Abstaining from eating and drinking allows us to take the rest our body and soul so deeply crave and ground ourselves and one another in a physical, mental and spiritual reset.
When I was a child, Ramadan symbolized the one time it was normal to spend your entire weekend in the Mosque. It was my first experience of a sleepover, with pajamas hidden under my abaya and Pakistani kurtas. Beyond the gender divide of the prayer halls, children would take naps on parents laps as the community prayed throughout the night. The Mosque was a beautiful gathering space open to anyone who needed a meal, whether or not they were fasting.
During the pandemic, Ramadan was different. Endless nights in the Mosque filled with prayer and community were scaled down to Zoom hangouts. Programs that were once filled with intimate in-person conversations on the floor of the Mosque, were now faceless squares on a screen, their names barely visible.
The Jummah or Friday prayers that were once so packed with people that the crowd spilled out onto the surrounding grass and sidewalks were conducted in parked cars. The mosque decorated the parking lot for drive-through visitors for the Eid Namaz, and community members waved from a distance to others with the same time slot.
I still remember when a friend’s mother died of COVID-19. What would have been a Janaza or funeral that surrounded the grieving family with community and prayer, turned into a Zoom call. Watching the tears of my friend’s family during the burial services, unable to visit her home and read the Quran together was heartbreaking.
Even before the pandemic, the world was not always a safe place for me and my community. From my family and I being yelled at to “go back to our country” when we were on vacation, to the looks my mother received when she wore her hijab in public, I understood even as a young child the ways in which Muslims were perceived as outsiders in our own country.
In many ways the pandemic compounded the islamophobia that my community began experiencing at heightened levels after 9/11. During Trump’s time in office, the Muslim community—which in the US mostly consists of people who identify as Asian and Black—faced heightened racism and incidents of violence, in part due to misinformation about the coronavirus. In the racial justice uprisings of 2020, Black Muslims—which make up more than 20% of all Muslims in the US—were not only targeted for their race but their religious background. Mosques across the country were vandalized, and continue to experience increased threats to this day.
Ramadan as a space to heal
These last few years made me realize how badly I craved the sanctuary of my Mosque, and to physically return to a space where I felt safe. I feel relieved and at peace to return back to nights where I am surrounded by familiar faces praying together side by side and breaking our fast without any fear of judgment.
In July 2022, Sania Khan’s life was ruthlessly taken from her by her ex-husband. Sania was a young, vibrant South Asian woman – a creator and photographer who had the courage to step out of an abusive marriage, even in the face of community norms that discourage women from speaking out. While this tragedy seemed to stir a consciousness in the South Asian diaspora that we can no longer justify the status quo, it is far from the only such incident. Just months later in December of 2022, Harpreet Kaur Gill was stabbed to death by her husband in Vancouver. While the most extreme cases like those of Sania Khan and Harpreet Kaur Gill are highlighted by mainstream media, a small body of research provides evidence that intimate partner violence experiences are equally, if not more, prevalent in South Asian communities than the general population in the US or Canada. That’s why we need to do more as a community and throw light South Asians and intimate partner violence.
Despite the identification and investigation of these norms in South Asia, there’s so much we still don’t know about diaspora communities, especially in relation to South Asians and intimate partner violence. In the US, South Asians have become one of the fastest-growing populations, but we remain unaware of how the stresses of raising a family in a different culture, and the weight of growing up between two worlds, affect these norms, expectations, and experiences among South Asian immigrants, the second generation and beyond.
In this article, we’ll take a deeper look at how these norms are enacted to influence intimate relationship dynamics, discuss the recent rise in intimate partner violence, and explore the work that researchers, policymakers, and program implementers can do to address violence in South Asian diaspora communities.
Social Norms and Violence in South Asian Diaspora Communities
Why does it take catastrophic events to serve as a call to action? For one, the “model minority myth” continues to portray South Asians in America (who originate from Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka) as a healthy and wealthy group. As a child of Indian immigrants, I always thought this was just a frustrating trope that lived rent-free in my head next to the eternal question, “Log kya kahenge?” (What will people say?) However, I have realized that this constant worry is not just an innocent preoccupation. It’s the result of a dangerous spiral beginning with the portrayal of South Asians as a model minority and the need to maintain that well-to-do image. This only reinforces the traditional gender norms that overlook men’s perpetration of violence and encourage women’s silence, crippling any efforts to understand the scope of the problem and draw attention and resources to address it.
The Impacts of COVID-19 on Intimate Partner Violence
Prior to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the frequently-uttered phrase among researchers, practitioners, and advocates alike was “one in three” — one in three women ages 15-49 experiences physical and/or sexual violence inflicted by an intimate partner in their lifetime. Under the cover of the COVID-19 pandemic however, rates of violence against women rose dramatically, prompting UN Women to call for recognition of this “Shadow Pandemic.” During the height of the pandemic, the social isolation that came with lockdowns and quarantine procedures to curb the spread of disease made home a more dangerous place for an increasing number of women. As communities seek to rebuild, the inequities in access to and use of potentially lifesaving services have deepened. Now more than ever, it is critical that we shine a light on the many intersections of our society to prevent South Asian women’s experiences of intimate partner violence from being pushed even further into the shadows.
First and foremost, to better understand South Asians and intimate partner violence, we need better data disaggregated by racial/ethnic group. Since the 1980 Census, only those of Indian origin have had a fill-in bubble.All other South Asian groups have to write something in, decreasing their participation. South Asian communities in the US are not a monolith and they are certainly not all of Indian origin. This perception, fed by our lack of data, likely privileges the Indian community in America and limits the visibility of other South Asian communities.
More accurate information will help us better understand where the need is greatest. We can make a stronger case for more equitable resource allocation, improve South Asian language materials for survivors, and enhance provider training programs, accounting for the specific cultural implications of disclosing and seeking treatment for violence in South Asian communities. Public health researchers should increase efforts to understand the prevalence of experiences of violence, the environmental factors that make South Asian women in America vulnerable to experiences of intimate partner violence, and how it impacts their health.
While outstanding organizations such as Narika in California and Sakhi in New York are leading the charge in raising awareness, running active helplines, and providing support, they cannot be the sole safe space for survivors. While the system’s failure to protect Sania is not an isolated incident, it has served as a wake-up call.
All South Asian women in America should be able to be healthy and safe and lead lives free from violence, coercion, or abandonment. To achieve this, we need better data, more research, culturally-tailored resources, and appropriate legislative action that will allow for prevention, screening, and treatment efforts to finally take root.