Growing up Muslim in American suburbia, I always knew that my decisions were not supposed to be like everyone else’s.
“Remember, we are not like them,” my parents would repeat, a mantra that separated me from everything they saw as wrong with Western society. The tenets of Islam that my parents most valued included no alcohol, modest clothing, and abstinence before marriage. They were alarmed by what they saw as a fundamentally irreconcilable American culture, full of drinking, immodesty, and infidelity.
Again and again, they would tell me that Muslims were different, that we upheld different values. I became used to turning down late night party invitations, wearing variations of jeans and long sleeved loose shirts, and barely making eye contact with boys in my classes.
Making these choices was not without effort, and I often felt envy towards my friends showing off rompers and sundresses. However, being modest was not something I questioned, because my parents imparted both how important it was to them and to God. I was aware that violating this would go against God, but what seemed more significant was how it would hurt my family. I viewed them so highly it would be unthinkable to ever go against their wishes.
This mentality carried me through the end of tenth grade, at which point pressure had started building from all directions. That was a time of endless SAT studying, tears over AP Calculus BC, a ban on social events past 9 p.m. By the first few weeks of junior year, I had settled into a monotonous routine. I would pull out my SAT review books directly after school, having cut back on the extracurriculars I once loved. After dinner, I would rush through homework, returning to test prep in the hour before bed.
“I hope you know how important it is that you do well on these exams,” my parents would counsel, asking how my latest practice scores were.
“I know. Of course I know,” I would reply hotly, anger mixed with frustration. My scores had stagnated, not rising even as I doubled and tripled my drills. When I tanked my next practice exam, I panicked, unable to tell my parents.
“Keep doing well, and you’ll be fine for the exam next month.”
I said nothing, a bitter taste rising in my mouth. I was furious, painfully so, at my family for caring so much. Don’t do this. Don’t make me feel so guilty. I’m trying. It stung to realize that I was less than what my family thought, and I began to feel an unbridgeable distance between us. I blamed myself, but I also blamed the God who my family had always promised would help me. I tried my best. Why am I failing?
The next morning, for the first time in my life, I slid a miniskirt into my backpack. My routine began to shift. Minutes after reaching school, I would trade my jeans and sweaters for low cut tank tops and skater skirts that barely grazed my thighs. I was certain that I would disappoint my family anyway, but unlike my exam results, at least this was a decision I had control over. As I felt increasingly helpless and angrier towards myself and God, the more revealing my clothing would get.
The SATs came and went, and before I received my results, I was sure of the outcome. As the CollegeBoard page started loading, I sat alone in my room, cold. I looked at them, then looked at them again. And again. I called my dad. “It’s good news.”
By some miracle, perhaps by the God I had lost trust in, my score was high enough to apply to the colleges I wanted. But by then, I did not know how to shift back, how to erase the doubt and frustration of the last months. More than that, I had become acutely aware of different perceptions when I wore tighter, exposed clothing. I received compliments often, and longer looks from boys. As time passed, I felt valuable only after changing my clothes, and unworthy of attention otherwise.
In the first months in college, it was exhilarating to wear shorts and crop tops without hiding them, and I reveled in the freedom. However, my perception of clothing’s relation to beauty deepened, and a time came when I couldn’t imagine going to the street in long sleeves. I flushed at the attention I received, letting myself flirt and be flirted with. A boy with dimples made me blush in Terrace, intertwining his fingers with mine. The next morning, I woke up in his arms. I had been dreaming of my family, and I shivered as the image of my father smiling at me faded. Slowly, I slipped out of the boy’s embrace, careful not to wake him. As I walked across campus in the early light, the sharp October air pierced my thin layers. I stopped to catch my breath. I was confused as I tasted salt, realizing a beat later that tears had flooded my cheeks.
This was not what I wanted. My frustration with my family and my religion had affected my clothing, but that rebellion had transformed into something much larger. I was subconsciously making choices that I knew were against my family’s wishes even as I was alone in college. My family lived by God’s word, so I was isolating myself from both. I knew that would happen the minute I pulled out that miniskirt, and I was willing to live with it. But now my choices were spiraling out of control, to the extent that they weren’t mine anymore. If this was independence, it was a twisted, cruel kind. I had never imagined feeling so untethered from my family and from the God they had raised me to love so much. Now, the tenets of my faith were controlling my every action, so much so that I could no longer pick out my autonomy from my reactions.
In the following mornings, I carved out time to pray before class. I spent my Sundays doing homework in the musullah, the Muslim room of worship on campus. I watched others meditating and reciting verses from the Qur’an, surprised by how many people quietly entered to pray. In studying the book for the first time, I recognized the tenets of Islam. This time, however, I read the history behind them, finally hearing why the rules mattered. My parents had ingrained in me their understanding of right and wrong, so strongly that to even think of crossing those lines was incomprehensible. I had been blind to the reasoning, believing that obeying was a sign of love for my family, and disobeying was an expression of my anger.
It has been a year since these early moments in my time at Princeton. I am always going to struggle with my religion, but I am also learning more about my faith with each day. I am making many mistakes, and will continue to do so. However, one of my favorite parts of the Qur’an is that no matter how many wrongs one has committed, they will be forgiven a thousand times over if they are genuine in their repentance. That thought gives me hope as I muddle through decision after decision in college. I love my family deeply, and know that the guidance they offer is of the best intention. It comes from a place of fierce love and pride in me. However, it is still painful to remember that pressure, to remember how I placed almost my entire self-worth on the results of a four-hour test. I cannot fully forgive them for contributing to that anxiety, and I hope that my younger brother will fare better. However, as angry as I may be at my family, I don’t want my religion to become entangled. My family is of my religion, but my family is not my religion.
2 thoughts on “Falling Out and Into Faith”
I hope that in this time of rising Islamophobia in the US, your fellow American students can read this and find resonances with your experience. It seems to be fairly standard, self-worth bound up in the race to college, breaking with familial expectations and belief, owning that belief. This piece needs to be the Nassau’s signature piece against Islamophobia, because it says, read my piece Evangelical Christian or Orthodox Jew, I am very much like you.