When I was five-years-old, I was introduced to the concept of hijab. My mom wore it, my aunts wore it, the ladies at the mosque wore it. It was a central part of my childhood and I loved the idea of it.
I grew up in a very conservative Pakistani Muslim household. Daily prayers, fasts, recitation of the Quran and dua’s, were rituals I looked forward to. I decided on my own, with absolutely no pressure from my parents, to take on the hijab at the age of six. Let’s just say, I was the golden child of my family.
Growing up, I always knew my boundaries. I had a clear sense of right from wrong and I always made sure I did the right thing. I feared God immensely. What would be my punishment if I was seen hijab-less, I often wondered.
I remember once a religious cleric said, “every step a woman takes without her hijab on is a step closer to hell.”
That thought completely terrified me as a child. I read books and heard stories of what the punishment would be, of going astray. And I never wanted to be that girl.
As a child, I had no problem donning the hijab. I loved my hijab and I wore it with pride. Even after the unfortunate events of 9/11, I remember my mother asked me if I wanted to take it off. I proudly insisted I wanted to wear it.
As I reached adolescence and became more self-conscious, my relationship with my hijab changed.
At first, I judged other girls that did not wear the hijab. Conversations such as, “OMG, I can’t believe she wears short skirts, that’s a sin,” “I can’t believe she has a boyfriend” or every mean girl’s all time favorite remark “wow she’s such a slut,” often took place. Saying these things didn’t make me any better than those girls, it was just a self-esteem issue.
Deep down, past my judgmental exterior, which I felt I had a right to since I was a hijabi, I was secretly envious of all those girls. I was resentful of girls who lived normal teenage lives, filled with social events, makeup, cute clothes and lots of boys.
Was I so wrong for wanting to assimilate? A part of me wanted to assimilate and a part of me felt incredibly guilty for harboring these thoughts in the first place.
During my sophomore year of high school, I befriended a girl at the mosque, who I will hence refer to as Laila.
Laila possessed all the qualities I wish I had within myself. She was rebellious and a risk taker, who did whatever she wanted. It didn’t hurt that she was beautiful, as well. Laila was the ultimate bad girl. If she wasn’t switching boyfriends, she was cutting class and smoking pot, if it wasn’t that, it was doing something crazy, like getting arrested!
All the boys desired her, she was cuckoo and I wanted to be just like her. The only obstacle preventing me from living my own life and partaking in more rambunctious teenage experiences was my hijab.
A part of me was incredibly rebellious and yearned for freedom, but with my hijab along with my super strict parents, I felt restricted. I wanted a boyfriend, I wanted to be desired, I wanted to have a social life. I just wanted to be a normal teenage girl.
Slowly by slowly, and after a lot of thought, I decided to take it off. It began in baby steps. I would sometimes take my hijab off when I went to the mall, just to see how it felt. I felt incredibly guilty, but at the same time, it was kind of exhilarating.
I was an incredibly honest person. It didn’t sit right with me wearing a hijab and doing things that weren’t halal, although looking back I didn’t do anything especially haram.
I decided the summer before junior year of high school, I would take off my hijab.
I broke the news to my mom. She was not happy at all, to say the least. I got yelled at, screamed at and she didn’t talk to me for two weeks. I felt awfully guilty, for making her upset, but I stood by my decision. I didn’t feel like I was pious enough to represent the hijab. My actions, the way I spoke and acted, did not correspond to the way a hijabi should act and I did not represent Islam the way it should be represented.
Taking off the hijab was a hard decision to make. No one supported my decision in my family. I was looked down upon by my immediate family and my relatives. It was such a shocker to all. I remember consistently having to defend myself and my reasons for removing my hijab, and it was really hard to deal with people judging you, at the age of 16. It was a difficult thing to go through and it became hard staying true to myself and not breaking down. My home life dramatically changed and my parents got even more strict. I was not to be trusted.
In school, I received mixed reactions. There was a lot of gossip from the Muslim girls talking about how I had taken off the hijab, it was a lot of back-biting. I guess it was karma, in a way, since I used to talk badly about other girls for doing haram things when I was a hijabi as well. From others, I got complimented on how nice my hair was. It was kind of nice being able to do my hair, wear makeup and get dressed up, for once.
I always felt like a bad person for taking off my hijab. That is, until senior year when one of my best friends, who was also a hijabi, backstabbed me and starting talking to a boy I liked behind my back. I felt betrayed. How could someone so pious, someone who prays, reads the Quran, is active at the mosque, end a grade school friendship over a boy? I was puzzled and heartbroken.
During that same year, my friend Laila, decided to run away from home, smoked a whole bunch of cocaine, was caught shoplifting and cheated on two of her boyfriends. As I matured throughout my senior year, I realized she wasn’t someone I wanted to be either (to put it mildly).
Through both of my best friends, I ultimately realized the kind of person I wanted to be. It also brought clarity into my black and white world of right and wrong that I was once so adamant about as a child.
Growing up, I was always under the impression that Muslims were good and everyone else who did not follow Islam were also good, but not as great as Muslims. I also thought heaven was made exclusively for Muslims, and all other religions, especially polytheistic ones, would not be allowed admission into the pearly gates. I made sure I only made Muslim friends, and I definitely stayed away from anyone who was polytheistic or atheist. I was under the impression they had gone astray and were the work of Satan himself. It sounds silly thinking about it now, but that is what I really thought.
My whole world was shaken when this perception was broken by both of my Muslim best friends. Both of them had one way or another backstabbed me and both committed sin. I yearned friendship, to be accepted and genuine company. How ironic was it that I found the companionship I craved with people that ascribed to a different faith and lifestyle than me? How were they so kind, thoughtful and true, while my Muslim friends were not? To this date, almost 10-years later, those girls are still my best friends.
I took off my hijab during my junior year of high school for incredibly shallow reasons. However, that one action led to my life and my youth being shaped in a completely different way. I don’t think I would have come to a lot of conclusions, or learned so much about myself if I didn’t take off the hijab. I don’t think I would have been able to explore my rebellious nature, meet people from other backgrounds or faiths, and get rid of my judgmental attitude if I was still a hijabi.
I deeply respect those that have the courage to put it on every day. But for those who are on the fence about taking it off, it is a difficult challenge.
If you truly do not feel happy wearing it, or have constant recurring thoughts about taking it off, then it might be worth a try to see how it feels, it might just help you find out who you really are. And if you need advice on the topic, please comment below.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Brown Girl Magazine.
“Confessions to a Moonless Sky” is a meditation on the new moon and guilt. I wrote it when I was living in Dallas and was driving back from a dusk prayer. The new moon terrified me on that drive. I was diseased by the knowledge that my partner, at the time, had seen the worst parts of me. There’s immense shame in this piece—it seized my self-image. If the moon could become brand new, then I could start over.
I often ponder on the moon’s reflective nature and pairs of eyes. I’m hyper-fixated on how I am seen by others. Unfortunately, the brilliance of seeing your reflection in another person leads to negativity. After all, those who are too keen on their own reflection are the same people who suffer from it. It is possible to use shame to fuel one’s retribution and personal growth, without becoming consumed by it.
We can look to Shah Rukh Khan succumbing to alcoholism in his own sorrow and then later imbibing his sadness in Chandramukhi. “Confessions to a Moonless Sky” is a lesson for us: Don’t be Shah Rukh Khan in Devdas, instead embody pre-incarnation Shah Rukh Khan in Om Shanti Om!
Sometimes when the moon abandons the sky, I wonder if I drove her away.
If she comes back, will she be the same? How I wish she would come back new, truly new! That way she’d have no memory of the sin I’ve confessed to her. You noxious insect. Sin-loving, ego-imbibing pest. You are no monster, for at least a monster has ideology, it sins with purpose. You sin just to chase ignominy.
But the moon won’t say that, she never does. She’ll just leave the sky and return days later, slowly. And I’ll wonder if she’s new, perhaps she won’t remember my past confessions. What does it matter? Were the moon replaced with one from a different god, I’d drive her away, too.
Growing up in suburban Connecticut, being the only brown face in a room has never fazed me. I was always the little brown girl in the corner with waist-length hair and a name that made every teacher pause, but the feeling of “otherness” captured in this line was something I knew all too well.
This feeling isn’t unique. It’s the same experience of many immigrants and first-generation South Asian Americans, and that of the main character of “The East Indian”as well.
While a work of fiction set in the 1630s, the novel paints a very real picture of immigration and race in the United States today and the human need to belong.
It is the story of Tony East Indian, inspired by a real person documented in the country’s archives as the first known East Indian in the American colonies, but who is otherwise a work of the author’s imagination and research.
The son of a courtesan from the Coromandel coast of India, Tony unwittingly finds himself as an indentured servant in the plantations of Jamestown, Virginia at just 11 years old.
He accepts “Tony” as his first name — though he doesn’t care for it — because a fellow Tamil once suggested others in the world would find his real name “too hard to utter.” Then he adopts the surname “East Indian” simply because it is thrust upon him when he arrived in Jamestown. The protagonist can no longer even recall his birth name, but soon, he accepts it as a thing of his past.
Over the course of the novel, Tony lands at the center of scandal as he works to establish a new identity as a physician. All the while, he also struggles with isolation, prejudice and the challenges of trying to maintain pieces of the culture he carried with him from abroad.
He is confused as to why Native Americans are also called “Indians” and many colonists simply label him a “moor,” a term used for North Africans or anyone with darker skin, with no context for India or its people in this new world.
He, feeling disloyal to his “many Gods,” converts from Hinduism to Christianity, believing it will give him more credibility and a sense of connection to his peers. He begins to eat meat and spend time at taverns, all in hopes of belonging, and assimilating with colonist ways.
As he comes of age and furthers his physician’s apprenticeship, Tony also begins to ponder questions of race and social class to no avail. He reflects:
“I would talk to Doctor Herman and try to understand the reason behind white skin and black and brown and, more important, what greater distinctions of wit, sensibility, and soul the differences in hue signified. I read and was taught by my master the new ideas put forth by men of learning in England and Europe on the workings of the bowels, the brain, the blood; the causes of migraines, melancholy, and madness, but I never got closer to understanding the real meaning behind what they called different races of men, and if such difference exists in any profound sense that really matters.”
Overall, in “The East Indian,” Tony becomes a man. He learns of the world’s cruelty and its kindness. He learns to work, play, love, hate, scheme, grieve and care for himself and others. But, like most immigrants, he still longs for home.
“For home is singular and unique. Everywhere else is but a stopping place, a bed in a stranger’s house, eating off plates not one’s own, an unfamiliar view from a casement,” Tony said.
When attempts to head West and find an ocean back to India fail, Tony accepts that returning to his motherland is unlikely and resolves that he must learn to adapt.
He worries his love interest, born in the colonies, will not relate to him, for “her heart did not ache for another place beyond the sea” and also wonders what the future of his children will be. Nevertheless, he is never defeated.
“I would thrive wherever the wind laid me,” says Tony. “[I] will be my own shelter, my landing place. Like a snail, I will carry home on my back, find it where I happen to be, make it from what I bear inside me.”
Leaving or even kidnapped from their homes with little to no hope of return, thousands of Indians faced journeys fraught with violence, condemnation and injustice trying to create new lives and identities away from their homeland in places like Mauritius, Fiji, Guyana, and Jamaica. However, like Tony, they also found the strength and courage to survive and establish their own cultures and communities.
While no details are known about the real Tony East Indian, Charry weaves a compelling coming-of-age tale that takes him as well as readers across three continents.
The novel, like life itself, has fast and slow moments, but it is filled with vivid, historically accurate depictions of the colonial world and moving moments that keep you rooting for the main character’s triumph.
It is this authenticity and compassion that makes “The East Indian” an invaluable modern work. There are no known first-hand accounts of the indentured or South Asian colonists in America. The only proof of the mere existence of many are the generations that have come after them.
With several years of research put into it, Charry’s “The East Indian” serves as a rare realistic portrayal of what life may have been for these individuals; the hardships they endured, and the strength they embodied. South Asian or not, it is a rich history not only worth reading but sharing and celebrating.
To learn more about Brinda Charry and her professional work visit her website. The East Indian is now available in print and audiobooks from all major book retailers.
Featured Image: Author Brinda Charry was born and raised in India before moving to the United States for graduate school two decades ago. She considers herself “a novelist-turned-academic-returned-novelist | Photo Credit: Lisa Arnold Photography
January 16, 2023January 16, 2023 6min readBy Sejal Sehmi
I was a mere 14-year old on the fateful night of 22 April 1993. The night that witnessed black teenager Stephen Lawrence brutally murdered in a racially motivated attack as he waited for a bus. The night that cemented my fear, that the colour of my skin does matter. The same night that confirmed my indifference as a British Asian in the United Kingdom — were we really united? Fast forward to May 25 2020, the murder of African-American George Floyd by a white policeman was the turning point for British Asian author and my lovely friend, Shweta Aggarwal to finally break her silence and narrate her story of colourism, in her new book, “The Black Rose.”
Aggarwal’s gripping memoir emits so many emotions; that of an awakening, a voice that has been suppressed for years, filled with anger, mistrust and guilt. But most importantly, “The Black Rose” successfully disrupts the narrative that consistently allows society to box someone as indifferent based on a visibility factor. For Shweta, this factor was the colour of her skin. The injustices she consistently endured via some family members and fellow South Asian peers throughout her life, was as a result of her skin tone failing to qualify as ‘acceptable’, or as she often quotes in her book, not ranking high enough on the ‘fairometer.’ Whether she was in India, Japan or London, the scale was never too far behind.
Within the first chapter, she recalls as a child in India, the distinct lack of subtlety displayed by certain family members through direct taunts of her duskier appearance in comparison to her parents. She realised that she wasn’t in complete isolation from this prejudice, as her maternal aunt and uncle were also harshly nicknamed on the basis of their skin colour — Kaali (black) and Savla (wheatish). Aggarwal was left mortified by what many South Asians sadly still continue to casually exercise. Echoing similar incidents within my social proximity, it’s infuriating witnessing the recipients of such remarks surrender to laughing at themselves too.
Except it isn’t funny. Born into a culture where conversations on religion, caste and hierarchy in India are still so prominent, the comparison of Aggarwal’s skin colour being as dark as that of the domestic help (often from poorer families), prematurely planted seeds in her mind that she simply didn’t belong with her family, especially when she was sent to boarding school. Her lack of self-worth coupled with these taunts, gave her a whole new vocabulary for the letter B, that grew in parallel with the ongoing prejudice and anxiety. B for blackie, beggar’s child, bedwetter! Not funny, but derogatory. Post her book launch that Brown Girl Magazine attended, she tells me,
I personally feel we are way behind when it comes to understanding the importance of mental health. Name-calling was normalised and if you objected, you were ridiculed further with remarks such as ‘So sensitive! Can’t you take a joke?’ Body and colour shaming can lead to a feeling of inadequacy in the victim, which can further lead to depression and much worse mental illnesses.
During the 1984 Hindu Sikh riots in India, where over 3000 Sikhs lost their lives, Aggarwal recollects the frightening moment when she and her classmates fled into hiding to escape the violence during a school trip. As a means to save all the students from harm, the Sikh boys were forced to remove their turbans and long hair — their visible identities stripped to keep them alive. Yet, ironically, even in this horrifying situation, Aggarwal felt least at risk, attributing this self-assurance to her darker appearance.
The crux of her self-loathe was the love-hate relationship she formed with skin whitening creams. The birth of Fair and Lovely, India’s most renown brand (now known as Glow and Lovely following a backlash) was notorious for selling the damaging message that fairer skin equated to a happier and fulfilling life. For it was fairer skin women that would qualify for marriage — clearly their only sole purpose!
Tactfully using famous fair-skinned Bollywood actresses in television ads and posters, their so-called perfection would scream out to vulnerable young girls. (Men were targeted much later on, but the importance seemed less). Akin to the wretched beach body posters plastered on every corner in January — because apparently bikinis only look good on a certain body type — the damaging message remains the same. Social acceptance comes at a cost, and that cost is to look a certain way.
It’s an extension of the dated methods imposed on women from the womb, where mothers are lectured on drinking milk with saffron to ensure the baby is fair, traditional matrimonial sites asking women to specify skin colour, and women being told to stay out of the sun. These socially ingrained views are eventually developed into modern day methods in the form of cleverly marketed consumables. Aggarwal admits,
Most people only use the cream on their face just as I did. At that time, I didn’t even think about the rest of the body. I felt that if the face becomes fairer, that will be enough for acceptance. My mum noticed the difference for sure and I was lighter by the time I met my husband, Amit. I must admit the addiction is a combination of three factors: the justification in your own head, the strong marketing message that ONLY fair is beautiful, and the ‘compliments’ from those around you.
I admired Shweta’s honesty on admitting what essentially was a dangerous obsession that she remained faithful to throughout her teenage and adult life. A ritual that, whilst prompted gradual results in her appearance, was never going to eliminate the insecurities she felt within herself. Moments of joy with her husband and children on holidays abroad, would be broken up by the need to ‘fix’ any damage the sun may have inflicted i.e. reverse her tan. The booming tanning industry in U.K., her now home, and admiration of her ‘sun-kissed’ look by Brits initially surprised Aggarwal — as if her colour had now gained acceptance.
But who are we seeking acceptance from? A society that is still deep rooted in patriarchy forcing women even now to adhere to dated rites of passage that holds no relevance? Or a society that seeks to point out one’s indifference because of how they look — their skin, their religious attire, their weight? Or a society that passes judgement on a woman’s self-worth, and continues to abuse that same woman behind closed doors under the eyes of Goddess Kali? Aggarwarl goes on to explain,
The more damaging perceptions of colourism, are that ‘fair is rich’, ‘fair is successful’ and ‘fair is better educated’. Essentially, ‘fair is supreme’ in every sense. And if that’s the case, where does that leave dark-skinned people? In Ukraine, for example black and brown people were discriminated against and not given a fair chance to save their lives. Is it fair to be denied a basic human right — survival — based on your colour?
I personally was curious to know from my family what the definition of prejudice in the Hindi vocabulary is and how it is/was applied to in India. “Pakshappat” (taking sides) or “poorva dhaarna”, were the closest pure Hindi definitions known to my cousin, yet rarely used. However, my dad stated that “hum bedh bhau nahin hai” was the common term used to state amongst family and friends when someone was not biased and believed in equality. Somehow, colourism never really came under that category. A sentiment echoed by some of my Chinese and black friends . Even in parts of China and Africa, the belief that darker skin is perceived as inferior, is accredited to stereotyping certain groups of people as manual labourers working under the sun, and therefore of a lower class or caste. Does Shweta believe we can change this attitude?
A couple of my aunts are still reluctant to help me with my mission. One even said ‘it’s pointless fighting it’, while one said, ‘everyone has the right to define beauty for themselves and being fairer is what beauty is for some.’ The problem with this is that people then start to look down on people who aren’t. Colourism, casteism and classism divide people, creating more unrest in society. If we continue to aspire to be fairer, we’re still encouraging white skin privilege, and encouraging colonial values. The more we allow ourselves to succumb to these social constructs, the more enslaved we feel internally. Melanin is crucial for protecting our skin against the harmful radiation of the sun. Feel blessed that you have it and wear it with pride!
I wonder how we can dare to walk shoulder to shoulder with our black friends in the Black Lives Matter movement, if we refuse to face up to our own biases against colour? We seek equality in the U.K., but deny our deep-rooted prejudice, whilst a white privileged man lectures the world on the difference between racism and unconscious bias (yes Prince Harry, I’m looking at you!). “The Black Rose” has paved a way for many more voices to speak out against the damaging impact of colourism, and in my view, rightly belongs under the definition of prejudice in the collective South Asian vocabulary.
“The Black Rose” is available to purchase on Amazon.