This past weekend, I participated in the annual International House University of Alberta Leadership Retreat. This retreat focuses primarily on the incoming Facilitation Team of International House but often includes other people connected to International House so everyone can benefit from each other’s experiences and of course, to learn many new things together. Since International House is part of greater global organization, International Houses Worldwide, it shares a mission of uniting and fostering friendships in an intercultural context, so intercultural training of some sort is always included in the retreat.
This was my second I-House retreat and definitely one that has left an impact. One of the seminars at the retreat touched on the idea that we all have a variety of identities. This is something I knew. I’ve been trying to balance a multitude of identities since I was 11.
Off the top of my head, some identities I have: female, young woman, daughter, sister, niece, granddaughter, student, friend, confidante, resident chef, leader, mentor, mentee, girlfriend, designer, developer, writer, social media guru, Muslim, Pakistani/desi, Canadian. Definitely, the last three identities have been at the centre of my biggest identity struggles. I was born in Pakistan but spent most of my childhood in Saudi Arabia, moved to Canada when I was 10, and have remained Muslim throughout. My parents encouraged me to be friends with everyone and embrace Canada but never to forget ‘my culture’ and always remember that I’m Muslim.
For some of my friends, this seemed to be an easier struggle. For me, I was constantly berating myself for having desires and curiosities I wasn’t supposed to have. I’m Muslim, so why am I so curious about Wicca? I’m desi AND Muslim, then why do I keep wanting to try this dating business? Those skirts look so cute! No, wait, I’m Muslim and desi, I only wear long maxi skirts that go to my ankles. Nope, can’t eat that, it’s got pork in it, yep, it’s a Canadian staple, but I can’t tell you what it tastes like. Yep, I’m Pakistani and nope I can’t fluently write Urdu. Yep, I identify as Canadian even though I wasn’t born here and don’t have any particular interest in hockey. Damn it, I can’t like that boy! He’s not desi OR Muslim. Aurooba, you’re desi, no wait, that tradition isn’t islamically sanctioned. I’m Canadian, I believe in multiculturalism and gender equality, but it’s not a good idea for me to be close friends with a boy, especially a non-desi non-muslim boy. Yep, I’m a feminist, Islam gives me equal rights, however in desi culture, a man can marry outside of the faith with very little repercussion while a girl that did the same would probably be disowned.
So I was constantly trying to find some way to integrate these 3 major identities. And always felt like a failure, because I couldn’t. Often one identity pulled against the other. Failure. Failure. Failure. Every time someone asked me to tell them about myself, I felt at a loss. Which Aurooba do I describe? So I just gave up, decided I was a failure at this, and tried to move on.
So my friend Leslie, who was leading the seminar, talked about how you don’t have to integrate your identities. You may seem like a different person in different contexts and situations, because you are responding with the side of yourself you feel most appropriately speaks to it. This doesn’t make you fake, it doesn’t make you someone who doesn’t know who she is. It just makes you a complex and varied human being in an increasingly complex and varied world.
I was sitting there, literally having my mind blown, because it seemed so simple. It’s okay, not being able to integrate is okay. I didn’t have to be this one single type of person. No matter what identity I was operating within, I was still me.
I’m writing this out and it seems like such a ‘duh’ moment. But it was such a revelation for me. Yes, often being Muslim and Desi and Canadian means having three conflicting world-views in my head, and yes, I choose which one to operate within in different situations. And that’s cool.
It means it’s much harder to label myself and difficult to describe all of who I am in a 15 second elevator pitch. But that’s okay. Nothing to be ashamed about.