Freedom is all important to me. I say that freedom is all important to me as I know what it feels like to live in a restricted life. I was born a Londoner and as the years go by I feel that is the label closest to defining me. Being a Londoner was a gift. I was able to explore my identity as an individual more freely than if my parents had never left Pakistan. I was obsessed with identity as a child – I felt my difference to other children acutely but it never stopped me from playing with any of my school friends. I struggled with my curly hair, brown skin and felt deep pain when the same friends would turn on me with the easiest insult during a game
“You’re just a Paki, go home!”
I couldn’t fight back as the initial shock of learning I did not belong just hurt too much. The routine began of going home stinging from the rejection (we always forgave each other the next day!) and crying to my parents
“Why did you come to this country?!”
My parents would joke back at me that we could leave for Pakistan and my answer was always a resounding
The struggles of being a good Muslim/Pakistani girl and fitting in with being a Londoner caused mayhem in my teen years. I drifted towards alternatives – Buddhism, Grunge/Punk Rock, Atheism, anything that took hold of my curious mind. I came across Political Islam by accident (my mum thought I was too Western so sent me for a weekend to see cousins – she did not know they were coming under the influence of a newer politically charged Islam). At school I decided to challenge my teachers and the sensibilities of everyone by donning a scarf. This act was a rebellion. My teachers were excellent and whilst questioning this change actually challenged me to explore and explain my new found identity. I am grateful they realized by allowing me to educate myself with all the ideas that I could possibly be exposed to – I would find a path right for me and society.
As an adult I have thrown off the shackles of cultural/religious expectations whether they come from my Pakistani/Muslim heritage or British media/wider society. The sad reality of life post 9/11 is that I shudder whenever an act of terrorism occurs as I fear a backlash on the Muslim community. When I read extreme comments made by “experts” such as Ayan al-Hirsi or Douglas Murray who at one gathering proclaimed life should be made extremely difficult for Muslims in Europe as a strategy – I become afraid, afraid for my entire community. I try to reassure myself that such words will never gather momentum – they are not targeted at Muslims like me but I always remember the history lessons at school. Hateful, angry rhetoric from politicians, career academics…or rather, bogus experts competing for the hearts, minds, votes, of the weary masses could be heard in another place called Nazi Germany. My parents often talked of their fear of being thrown out one day and I would argue against them but I am scared for my children. What difference does it make if I am not a practicing Muslim? Hate blocks out the capacity to reason.
On a brighter note I believe the majority of Britain is not blinded and easily led down the path of division – that applies to the Muslim community too. But it is difficult in a climate in which discussion about Islam can seem polarized. Sadly, I do not always feel comfortable expressing myself among my fellow Muslims in fear of backlash from a lone hyper individual.
The political fire storm over accusations of radicalization is counter- productive and seeks only to gain votes for politicians cynically exploiting the fear of terrorism. On the other hand rogue Muslim “leaders” also exploit the fears of Muslims who have bought into the narrative of victimhood. Communities who are in the processes of settlement or generations born in Britain but undergoing the trials of balancing multiple identities as well as the worries of education, employment, life are vulnerable. These communities are exposed by political/media hysteria about extremism, sex scandals, honour killings, Sharia to those who advocate rejection of Britain as a country that accepts them.
I try to walk on an alternative path carved through reason and knowledge. I have my children and I have devoted my life to giving them the understanding of how crucial free will is – even the Pakistani poet Iqbal reminds Pakistanis that God has given humans free will.
My message to extremists on both sides is that they are not reflecting my vision of what London is. My life has shown me I must embrace my freedom and I try to celebrate being a Londoner in my consciousness everyday (because getting to this point in my life was a fight!).
Nazia is a mother of three children. She has a degree in History (focus on modern Europe, Russia, Ottoman Empire, Origins of Islam, Mughal Empire, Middle East) from School of Oriental and African Studies London.