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by Sadia Latifi
When my family gathered to mark the end of Ramadan a few weeks ago, a young woman approached me wearing a floor-length black abaya. A niqab covered everything except for a 6-inch slit over her eyes. She shook my hand tightly, said hello, and walked away.
Only later did I realize that faceless figure was my second cousin. I hadn’t seen her in almost a year, but remembered her as a bright tomboy who kept to her books and her tight-knit group of friends. After being born in the United States and raised in the public education system, she made the choice to begin covering her face when she turned 17.
In the years since 9/11, some commentators have said they haven’t been able to recognize their country. I haven’t been able to recognize my family. Today, nearly all of my female relatives conceal their hair at the very least. Many of my family members will not allow their photographs to be taken. Most gatherings have pardaa, which means they’re segregated by gender. There is no music at parties, including weddings. Birthdays are not celebrated at all. My extended family is more concerned with maintaining a constant state of worship than climbing the rungs toward the American dream. After living in this country for more than three decades, my family has set a reverse course from the typical immigrant trope: We are dissimilating.
When my mom’s relatives streamed into Virginia throughout the 1970s, they were eager to claim the expanded opportunities of the United States, and they accepted the cultural baggage that came along with it. At family gatherings throughout my childhood in the '90s, my family would sing Bollywood songs, conduct loud, midnight debates over Gulf War politics, and down cup after cup of chai. Growing up as the only girl in my family, I joined my brother and male cousins in reenacting WWF match-ups in my uncle’s basement.
Like most kids, I learned religion straight from the mouths of my parents. The only primary religious text I studied on my own was the Quran, and I had been taught to recite the entire thing in Arabic, a language I couldn’t even understand. Muslim-American was never a contradiction in my household, and my devoutly religious but culturally savvy parents picked and chose the artifacts of American society we would embrace (road trips, buffets, top 40 radio) and those we wouldn’t (dating, drinking, showing my ankles). My family prayed, but not five times a day. We kept halal but would occasionally indulge in a drive-thru run for Chicken McNuggets.
When two planes hit the New York City skyline, we did not suddenly switch off the radio and drive past the McDonalds. On that day, my family experienced the same mix of emotions that hit many other American Muslims: horror, confusion, fear, and a little paranoia. After decades of quietly integrating into the mainstream, Muslims were suddenly in the spotlight, and the attacks forced millions of them to reassess their beliefs for the first time since leaving their homelands. Some Muslims pieced together emerging strains of Islamaphobia as evidence of an international crusade against the world’s fastest-growing religion. Others progressively reinterpreted religious texts to adapt to modern times and Western expectations.
For my family, a re-education in Islam has expressed itself through a newfound isolationism—something like giving the silent treatment to an entire populace. Bare arms have been covered, beards grown, children sent off to private Islamic schools. Now, when talk turns to hyper-consumerist culture, the blame falls squarely on “Americans,” a subconscious misspeak that fails to reconcile the fact that every person in my family is an American citizen. Our large clan, which once desperately applied for visas to move to this country, is now doing its best to avoid the effects of living in it.
It’s not that my family hates America or wishes to return to Pakistan. Most of us could never dream of living anywhere else, and for those of us born here, the thought is impossible. As domestic and international events unmoored us from the mainstream, my family latched onto traditional Islamic beliefs and practices—the same ones it all but abandoned when it arrived in the United States. But as it shunned its American cultural identity, my family has also severed ties with its Pakistani roots.
That’s because my family’s radicalization was spurred by relatives who were born and bred here in the U.S. My young cousins—teens and 20-somethings who have only seen Pakistan a handful of times—are now claiming a brand of Islam they never experienced as children. They are learning Arabic so they can understand the Quran at the source, then passing on their acquired knowledge to their parents, who have gradually learned to accept its teachings. And in their reexamination of Islam, they have determined that some of our Pakistani rituals don’t jibe with doctrine. They claim that many cultural traditions were loaned from Hinduism or other religions, or are otherwise not supported by the Quran. Apart from our food and our language, my family's native Pakistani culture is now almost entirely absent from family gatherings.
As I’ve confronted my own faith, I’ve come to a much different conclusion. I believe in the foundation of Islam but struggle with its attitudes toward women and modern society. The pardaa means I haven't been able to speak to some of my male relatives in years, so I tiptoe around them, and it feels ridiculous. I get frustrated with my wavy hair but wouldn't dream of covering it. I live alone and away from home, a controversial living situation for a single woman. I've been known to go on a bad date or five.
And I’m not the only one feeling alienated. My father, a traditional Pakistani nationalist, is losing his own culture war. My dad enjoys listening to classic Urdu songs and consuming hours of Pakistani programs from his satellite dish, and he’s dismayed at the younger generation’s complete disinterest in Pakistani culture. My dad isn't ready to surrender just yet. He's made vocal his plans for my wedding, should it occur in his lifetime, telling whoever will listen: “There is going to be music and no pardaa, and if you don’t like it, you don’t have to come."
I agree with his sentiment, but I worry about the prospect of a dwindling guest list. My father and I both know we’re losing ground as our extended family members abandon their ethnic and cultural allegiances for a more universal religious one. The rational part of me knows that this strange time in America’s history will pass, just as this era in my family’s history will, too. The emotional part wishes I would be around to see it.
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