Friday, 24 June 2016

On Belonging - Wasi Daniju

This is the sixteenth post in the Interfaith Ramadan 2016 series. Articles written by contributors from diverse faiths and none will published every day throughout the month of Ramadan. 

Credit: Wasi Daniju

“this glib-gabbit, mony-littit tongue            “this slippery, many-coloured tongue
snacks at identity as tho hit wis                 snaps at identity as though it were
a gollach piecie sappit wi                      an insect morsel lathered with
the sweet-n-soor o BELONG”                  the sweet and sour of BELONG”
    Visa Wedding #1                                       Visa Wedding #2

                    Harry Giles

Growing up, I lived between two very different households - one with my parents, in which Islam and Nigerian traditions co-existed; the other with my English foster parents, paid by my parents as full-time nannies in a private fostering arrangement. My foster parents practiced no religion, but were always respectful and affirming of our own.  

I’ve always considered myself a proud South-Londoner - I lived on an estate in Brixton, went to a comprehensive primary school just around the corner from home, and knew Brixton mosque before it existed (my dad was one of the founders).  But I actually spent the majority of my childhood in a small town in Kent where I attended a somewhat different primary school, set in the shadow of the town Castle, and later went on to the girls’ grammar, the only black girl throughout my 7 years in the school.  As I divided my life between these two worlds, I learnt to be the definition of adaptable, a chameleon making the appropriate changes to blend into whichever environment I found myself in - I even spoke with different accents (and eventually different languages) between my two homes.  

When it came to my practice of Islam, earlier life was simple - given that my weeks were spent in Kent, my only interaction with other Muslims was at our local mosque at the weekend, and of course, other Muslim family members.  As such, anything we did at home and in our community was the only Islam I knew, whether that was sitting reading surahs (Qur'an verses) and hadith (words attributed to the Prophet) with my dad after fajr, or going out to parties celebrating births, birthdays and marriage, with all of the reveling that entailed.  It never occurred to me that not all Muslims lived as we did and that there could be different Islams to the one I knew - this was the 90s, so there was no Google, and until I got to Uni, no such thing as the internet at all.

Pre-university, my two homes and two very different environments set me up for what was at times a confusing but fairly proficiently managed double life.  At home in London I attended madrassah, learning Arabic and memorising verses of the Quran. In Kent, I learnt RP, joined my first choir, and was introduced to stand-up comedy.  Travelling between the two locations, I exchanged one personality for another, often longing for some permanence, but generally accepting that was the way things were, and I was simply destined to always be a little in-between.  It often felt as though, no matter how well I seemed to fit into each place, I never really belonged in either. 

I expected university to offer the chance to reconcile what I thought of as my two identities; instead, without the delineation of those two selves by geography, I found they collided within me, and I began a struggle to determine who I really was.  I started to question which parts of my lifestyle fit with being Muslim, and my introduction to the university’s Islamic Society added to my trepidation, convincing me that certain things I did (praying salaat, wearing hijab, not going to the pub) made me a ‘good Muslim’, while others (having male friends, listening to music, being somewhat inclined to profanity) did not make the grade.  Used to a friendship group made up entirely of non-Muslims, and with the judgement that I felt came from the Muslims I was now meeting, I chose to stay away from Muslim spaces at uni.

But of course, it wasn’t quite that clear cut.  At school, my faith had never really played any kind of active role - except perhaps for that time me and a couple of friends skipped assembly and hid in our classroom’s book cupboard; when we were discovered we told the teacher it was because I was fasting, and it was cooler in there... On the whole, my faith was fairly invisible until I got to university, started wearing hijab, and had to contend with all the questions and assumptions that came along with that.  Even well-intentioned friends felt at ease telling me they thought organised religion made no sense - not helpful, as I grappled with making sense of my faith myself.

Wasi's Mum and Foster Mum 

In the years to follow, as I explored Islam more (mainly through meeting more and various Muslims), I discovered many different iterations, and my own practise evolved in fits and starts.  I swung from tradition to (self-described) heresy, back and forth, and sometimes around and around, as I attempted to incorporate different learning and my gradually and relentlessly widening world-view.  And throughout my transformations, there was this constant worry of being judged - a worry that I was not quite Muslim enough for the Muslims I encountered, and far too ‘religious’ for those who didn’t share my faith.  I always felt certain parts of me needed to be kept concealed, different depending on the group I was in.  For the most part, I am now far more self-assured in my self and my beliefs, (supported by so many Muslims - post first year ISOC experience!) and with that my fear of judgement has abated somewhat, though my questioning of my personal faith, and what it actually means, continues.

Throughout my growth and development as a Muslim, my life choices took me to may different places - I completed 4 degrees in 5 different places (including a couple years in Belgium), and moved for work a few times.  In each new city, I was forced to start over, and in searching for some kind of community, I would seek the local mosque and try to become a part of the congregation.  Again and again, though, I found it difficult to find a mosque that I felt comfortable in.  In some cases, it was the usual sisters-as-second-class-citizens feel - I remember once in a mosque the lights being turned off as myself and a few other sisters prayed; not a deliberate sabotage, but there just being no idea there were women there, as we were hidden away behind a curtain.  In other cases, practicality meant I was unable to really integrate into new congregations - I’d have work or class during juma’at, and taraweehs were too late for me to attend.  As such, I spent a number of years experiencing mainly solitary Ramadans, homesick for family suhoors and community iftars and night prayers. 

Once I finally moved back to London, I realised that actually my Islam had moved on from that of my family’s mosque, so that even if I had this potential community to fall back into, in actual fact, it was no longer really one I felt I belonged to. Once again, I found myself unmosqued, with no regular place to attend for worship and community. Things weren’t as lonely as before, though, as I found groups, such as Wisdom in Nature (an ecology group I was part of for a number of years) and Rumi’s Cave (Muslim community centre) where at least I felt my Islam was understood and completely accepted.  I no longer felt like the different parts of my life made me some kind of mongrel or even strange - however I practised, it felt OK in these arenas.  

Early last year, a request from the Inclusive Mosque Initiative (IMI) to come photograph their inclusive juma’at (Friday prayers) led to what felt like some kind of coming home.  The group did exactly what its name suggested - I felt a really active inclusivity, an intentional openness and acceptance that fostered that same feeling in me. The liberation of feeling I could come to this space and be completely myself, with all my various beliefs and behaviour, was massively liberating, and remains so. The only thing still missing is an actual mosque, and the constancy that this could bring.

For now, then, my permanency and the space in which I can be fully myself comes from a few very good Muslim friends, including my siblings. This freer faith is bolstered by infrequent but still heart-strengthening contact with IMI and Rumi’s Cave, and contact with certain Muslim folk on twitter (e.g. Zaynab Shahar and others). I’ve gotten to a place where I feel much more like one self, and am continuing to grow in confidence in my own interpretation of faith. The only thing still missing, though, is a constant community linked to a mosque. After years of being a bit of a loner, more than just a part of a community, I’d like to be part of a congregation.

Wasi with friends

Wasi Daniju is a counsellor and a photographer, and one of those people that sings all the time.  She has a penchant for hanging out in libraries, and bringing disparate groups of people together, normally via the medium of picnics.  You can find her photos on 500px and flickr, and can catch her (mainly retweeting) on Twitter.

Previous Post:
Interfaith Ramadan Vignettes From Around The World

Related Posts:
When Online Muslim Friends Provide Love and Community - Sarah Ager
Finding Home - Sarah Ager
Leaving Community To Find Myself - Harleen Kaur

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