I contain multitudes
by Yasmina El Hilali
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself;
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
– Walt Whitman Song of Myself – Leaves of Grass (1892-92)
When we are kids, we hardly ever question who we are; we just are.
I was an exuberant child and my emotions were intense. Whether I was happy, sad or angry, I had no problem making any of it known to the world. I was loved and I found it easy to love and the little world I knew was all I knew, and it was fine that way.
I come from a mixed family. I was born to a Dutch mother and a Moroccan father. My mother converted to Islam when she married my father and I, too, grew up Muslim. My closest family outside of our household are my grandparents. Neither really cling to religion, but the closest thing they believe in was the Christian faith. I grew up celebrating Christmas with them and the Dutch – somewhat controversial – holiday Sinterklaas. Aside from these I also celebrated the two Eids within my own household and I fasted during the month of Ramadan. I never questioned if they could go together, for my little self, they just did.
Fast forward to my teens and high school, where the trouble started in terms of identity. People started questioning what it is that I am, and so I did too. It is a very difficult thing when you yourself genuinely love your heritage, either of them, but external forces are trying to make you choose. Cue six years of internal turmoil, wondering to which community I belonged, wondering which would accept me for what I am. And believe me, there were days I would cry out of confusion and frustration.
It was only when I entered my early twenties, that the acceptance of either the Dutch or Moroccan community was no longer on my wishlist. It wasn’t something I needed anymore. For myself, I had lovingly embraced both parts of my identity. Moreover, at nineteen I chose to wear the hijab and an entirely different world, both of struggle and determination, opened up for me. See, throughout my years of struggling with my cultural identity there had been one constant factor: my faith in God. So, if I belonged nowhere, I figured, at least I belonged with God.
This was a notion and a conviction that gave me strength and shaped the woman I am today. See, as a Muslim woman wearing the hijab, people seem to know exactly where you belong and they will pick on you all the same. And then it hit me, all the things you hear in sappy quotes, but never truly speak to you until you realize it yourself; you will never please anyone, so make sure it is yourself you please.
As a woman of a mixed background wearing the hijab, I tend to confuse, startle, downright annoy or spark curiosity in people. Being subjected to constant questioning is something I have gotten used to and even though I resent it, it is exactly the people that questioned my identity that strengthened it. This does not mean that I will ever get used to being called out on the length of my hijab, to swallow comments on what I should or shouldn’t wear, being mocked or downright insulted. It always hurts.
Yet, I no longer let this define me as a woman. I no longer apologize for belonging nowhere and simultaneously belonging everywhere. I do not apologize for being a walking contradiction. I have embraced who I am and this either sparks admiration in people or vexes them. You’ll only be able to alter the way you deal with this, but you’ll never prevent this from happening. As Warsan Shire beautifully states:
Light attracts light. But sometimes your light attracts moths and your warmth attracts parasites. Protect your space and energy.”
Being who I am today, I make it my business to engage with people. I make it my business to really see them, in a way I wish I had been seen as a child. As I wish I had been understood and accepted before I could do that for myself. I believe there is a reason for everything and having struggled with my sense of identity and still facing prejudices and assumptions every day, I believe it is my task to change existing perceptions one step a time. It is part of the reason why I have become a teacher and it has been the reason for starting this blog.
You cannot be what you cannot see. You have to see yourself being represented.
So when we, contradictions of the world, teach, write, engage in conversation and have the ability to educate others on who we are, however different, I am convinced we have the ability to change things for the better. Not to justify our existence or apologize for who we are, but to be advocates for those who are still figuring this out for themselves.