Sitting in Islamiat class at the age of 10 or 11, the teacher’s voice rang out: “What are the five pillars of Islam?” Dutifully, we answered as a class in one voice. Shahada, salat, zakat, roza, hajj. Every Muslim child is taught to answer this question, and we’re meant to answer on demand to prove we know what it really means to be Muslim — at least, that’s the assumption. Of course, this wasn’t the only thing we were taught about being Muslim, but it’s a good example of how we were meant to accept communal teachings and practices regarding religion.
Islamiat, the studying of Islam as a subject, was compulsory in schools in Pakistan up until our O-level exams, and religion was as much a part of the everyday as cultural practices were, with the two intertwining in many places. That served as a daily reminder of just how important Islam and being a Muslim was meant to be in our lives.
For a long time, I never questioned that importance, but somewhere around the time that I was 14 or 15 something about the way we were made to practice those beliefs started to bother me. I soon realized that my questions came from not understanding my own place within the culture in which I was raised. Much as I tried to follow everything I was told, or do all the right things, I felt like an outsider. For a very long time, I tried finding my answers in religion, but young as I was, my questions were often met with shock or disdain. As a woman, the norm of putting men in a higher position over us didn’t sit right with me. At the same time, my own ties to my faith prevented me from believing that a religion I felt so close to would place me second.
I understood the importance of practicing, made an effort to keep up with my daily prayers (although how good I am with that effort continues to rise and fall), and even started wearing the hijab when I was 12. But still, I questioned. Was I not a good Muslim?
For a few years, I didn’t have a word to describe my thoughts. I just thought that I felt different. Women’s rights activists were cornered off in a niche of our society, and the radicalized image they were presented in made me scared as a young girl to associate with them. It was only through my own readings and research that I came across the idea of feminism. But any mention of the concept was met with harsh backlash, mostly from my family and elders, who reduced the movement to angry, pitchfork-wielding women seeking to ruin all semblance of traditional society.
When I look back now, I realize that I’ve been a feminist for a very long time. But not being able to embrace that identity left me with years of self-doubt, both around being a woman and a Muslim. It wasn’t so much about not being able to get other people to accept who I was, but rather that years of being taught one thing had left me unable to reconcile the intersectional parts of my own identity.
I was told for so long that feminism is the opposite of Islam, that it takes women away from their religion. But in accepting that I can wholeheartedly try my best to be good at both, I feel free. Embracing my feminist identity has released me from the pressures of practicing my faith the way others expect me to. This has allowed me to choose the path I want to take. It’s brought me closer to God. I see myself as a feminist-in-progress, because I always have more to learn and I aim to be better every day. The journey of learning that I have undertaken has extended to all aspects of my life, including my religion.
Wanting to be a better feminist has also made me want to be a better Muslim. To me, being a good Muslim is inherently about faith, and my faith in my relationship with Allah has grown a lot stronger. I’m not an apologetic Muslim anymore; I don’t feel the need to justify my actions. Instead of pushing myself to act the way others around me thought a Muslim should be, I now focus more on building spiritual connections with what I do practice and on learning the Quran on my own time, for myself.
In all my actions as a Muslim, the most physically obvious practice is the hijab. While others may see it as a big deal, for me it’s simply a part of my journey. I always say I didn’t choose to wear a hijab once. It’s a choice I make time and time again, one that continues to mean something slightly different for me each time I make that choice. It’s not just my hijab. As I have continued to grow, I have chosen the parts of my life I want to take with me and the ones I could do better without. My faith is extremely important to me, and I want to be a better Muslim, but to do that I need to let go of the societal expectations of what being a woman means, of the performative way in which being a Muslim is presented. And yet I choose to hold my womanhood dear to me in my own way. Setting those boundaries and choosing to constantly try and be the best version of myself that I can has really helped me find peace in who I am.
Fighting to maintain the person I wanted to be led me to search deeper and deeper for what it looks like to stand strong against the people who questioned my right to choose. I remember my mother trying to get me to take Quran classes or read the Quran in translation in her effort to help me learn more about my religion. But what really motivated me to learn more was when I began to have questions for which no one else seemed to have answers. And so I started searching for myself.
My choice to embrace my religion for no one but myself has empowered me in ways I never knew. Over the past few years, I have developed an increasingly strong connection to my faith, one that has in turn strengthened my desire to be the best feminist I can be both personally and politically. I no longer take the stress of representation on my shoulders because it is not mine to bear. I am not every Muslim woman, and she is not me. My religion, my culture, my political and personal all come together to make me who I am. I am at my best when all of those factors are allowed to flow into each other to reach my full potential. For the longest time, I hated people asking me to tell them about me. Who was I? I was always being told so many things from every direction, and it left me lost and confused. It’s different now. I’m everything I want to be, because I’m no longer hiding from myself.
Anmol is a Muslim-Pakistani journalist and a strong advocate for intersectional feminism. Her work explores identity, gender, and culture.