Breaking Free From the Chains That Bind Us

“‘What makes the desert beautiful,’ said the little prince, ‘is that somewhere it hides a well…” (The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry) In a self-absorbed world quickly succumbing to addiction and obsession, oppression and aversion — it is easy to lose sight of the things that truly matter. Merely living for the sake of living, we often find ourselves counting days off the calendar, not quite knowing why; and in the blur of monotonous routines, counting blessings never once crosses our minds. “Gratitude” becomes a foreign word, and “happiness” seems like a long forgotten childhood dream, conjured up by false implications of what life would be like when we finally grew up. We become immune to the beauty that lies beyond what we presume to be a broken and battered world; neglecting to look past the cracks at what may very well be a second chance at hope.

Hope — a destination yearned by those who have felt pain and experienced loss. Despite all the thorns we may encounter in the wild forest this life seems to be, hope remains a flickering flame, lighting our path through it all. It’s a reliable friend, a steadfast presence offering its hand even when we carelessly push it away.

But what is it that drives us to turn away, to face the opposite direction with the tiniest bit of guilt fabricating like a weight in our chests for not choosing happiness over fear? Doubt — like a seed planted in the depths of the soil, it grows like poison, intoxicating and bowing us to its will. We become prisoners in our own minds, struggling to break free of the chains that bind us to its walls.

In the twenty-first century, a rapidly changing world unique unto itself, humanity surrenders itself to doubt, living amongst the shadows and struggling to survive, making life out to be a race against time; the goal to merely beat the odds and make it out alive. Tethered to this mentality, we become detached from enjoying the simple pleasures of everyday life, of what it means to be alive and breathing when so many do not have the luxury of doing so. We focus instead on the burdens that weigh us down — deadlines and appointments, wealth and consumption. What we neglect to understand is that these things are all temporary, meaningless when we’re left with just memories and regrets to keep us up at night.

Accustomed to bearing the weight of fleeting moments that just barely grazed our fingertips before bidding farewell, we forget to live in the now. We deprive ourselves of the very happiness we desire that knocks on our door day after day; so evident yet invisible.

An insight that’s been spoon-fed to us throughout the years is that all troubles eventually pass — nothing lasts forever. It’s not a foreign concept, nor an outdated one. Attar of Nishapur, a 12th-century Persian-Muslim poet, once wrote a fable in which a mighty king called upon three intellectual men, urging them to create for him a ring that would simply restore his happiness when he was sad. After much consideration to achieve the desired result, the men handed him a ring on which engraved words read, “This too shall pass.” Coming to the realization that in the grand scheme of things, a once broken heart will mend itself and the high tides will finally settle into a tranquil rhythm is the first step in guaranteeing a sturdy stepping stone to an optimistic outlook on our lives.

So how do we harness the beauty of this life when we are so weighed down by its devastation? In this pursuit for happiness, we need to realize that the little things will always matter more than the big things. Influenced by propaganda our whole lives, we’re taught to believe that consumption of material goods and the need to always have more is the only thing that will bring us peace — but that is completely and utterly false, a diversion so that we forget to focus on what we already have, ourselves and our loved ones.

Personal prosperity comes first and foremost — if we aren’t pleased with ourselves, how can we expect our lives to be any different? Relying entirely on other people to satisfy us isn’t enough — when there is a lack of self-love within a person, there’s also a lack of scope for mental growth in all matters. Yasmin Mogahed, an American-Egyptian author, wrote in her debut self-help book entitled Reclaim Your Heart: “Through my attachments, I was dependent on my relationships to fulfill my needs. I allowed those relationships to define my happiness or my sadness, my fulfillment or my emptiness, my security, and even my self-worth. And so, like the vase placed where it will inevitably fall, through those dependencies I set myself up for disappointment. I set myself up to be broken.” Learning to break free from our comfort zone is undoubtedly difficult, but it must be done if we’re to find the potential for greatness that lies in each one of us. If we’re to find the rose among thorns, we must be courageous enough to fight our way through the thickets.

The thirteenth-century Japanese priest Nichiren once said, “Burning the firewood of deluded impulses, we behold the flame of enlightened wisdom.” Inner peace arrives only when we learn to let go of the toxic ideals that hold us back — greed, hatred, and ignorance. Although these are normal human impulses, we have the power to control and contain them. When we actively work toward ridding ourselves of egotistical personalities and instead embracing empathy, we’re able to expand this instinctive self-love into something greater: love and tolerance for others.

Research conducted by Dr. Daniel G. Amen, a psychiatrist, author, and brain-imaging specialist, found that “performing acts of kindness creates positive changes in blood flow and activity in the brain.” One of the wonders of this world lies in its diversity — a marvel in itself. No one person is the same; every language and culture so intricately different and fascinating. No one personality is the same, each one unique to its name. Love does not discriminate — learning to respect one another results in a gradual change toward collective security and an accepting, embracing society.

Learning to be grateful appears to be a forgotten art entirely. We live life through what we perceive to be clear lenses, when in reality, they’re as stained and cracked as they come — which is why we often fall into the trap of counting burdens, versus blessings. It all comes down to perspective. If it weren’t for all the trials and tribulations we encountered, would we be the same people we are today? If it weren’t for all those that hurt us in the most unforgivable of ways, would the strength and patience to endure pain even exist?

The appreciation of the vast beauty this world has to offer is another lost art — how every sunset seems to be more wonderful than the next; how the branches of trees glimmer with evening dew; how the sea conducts an orchestra of its own, an entirely different world lying just below the surface. When was the last time we truly enjoyed any of these things — taking it all in, bathing in the golden-crimson glow of the setting sun or finding comfort in the sleepy murmur of the trees?

As long as our hearts are still beating, steady and pulsing in our chests; as long as our eyes are able to shed tears over the good and the bad; as long as the mountains hold the ends of this earth together; as long as the sun and the moon and the stars rise in the east and set in the west; as long the earth tilts on its axis — it is not the end. It is just an indication of the beauty of this battered world, that the darkness of night will precede the dawn and the sun will always rise again in the morning. We do not walk this path alone — for as the little prince says, there lies a well somewhere, a symbol of hope amidst the vastness of the desert.

Four Years of MIST: A Reflection

As a freshman in high school, you’re bound to get the “extracurriculars matter!” lecture drilled into your head by parents and teachers and counselors alike; all reinforcing the idea of colleges looking for “well-rounded individuals” with more to show than just good grades and a clean record. You’re bound to feel pressured into signing up for various after-school clubs and events, pushing yourself to socialize and mingle with students outside your inner circle. Despite being an exhausted 14-year-old with a packed schedule, I felt my creativity begin to falter — there was potential for me to grow and expand my talents, but the activities my school provided weren’t quite fulfilling that.

Late in January of 2013, a group of high school seniors and college students visited my local Sunday school, gathering kids together as they prepped for a presentation about The Muslim Interscholastic Tournament — or MIST, as they called it. Intrigued not only by the fact that this was a religiously-based tournament, but that it had a number of competitions appealing to every academic and creative arena; I was ecstatic and couldn’t wait to sign up.

I was completely unaware then that participating in this regional tournament for the next four years would shape my entire high school career and strengthen my connection to my faith.

The weeks leading up to MIST weekend falling sometime in early March were brutal, in the most satisfying sense of the word. Every minute of sleep I lost preparing the submissions for each of my competitions was worth it — I was challenging myself intellectually, physically, and emotionally; and I knew my efforts would pay off somehow in the end. Group competitions allowed me to work closely with my teammates as we put our minds together; all the while forming lifelong friendships and unforgettable memories.

The weekend of the tournament, held that year at Temple University in Philadelphia; called for last minute preparation on Friday night before waking early the next morning for the drive downtown. There was a kind of exhilaration in the air I sensed that day — teams huddled together in the registration hall whispering excitedly about their competitions; some proudly displaying their school banners and chanting. There was playful competitiveness between every team — mutual respect for another and support I found endearing. Despite not knowing anyone but my fellow team members, the environment felt familiar and welcoming; from the smiles I received from people I’d never spoken to, to the nods of encouragement and applause when opposing teams showed their school spirit.

Those two days raced by in what felt like the fastest weekend I’d ever encountered, but what left me with a refreshed view on the world and all it had to offer. From anxiously presenting my submissions to the judges to attentively listening to the lectures offered by scholars and speakers; I felt for the first time a strong connection to the Muslim community, particularly the youth. Despite being an Islamic-oriented tournament, MIST was inclusive of people from all religious and cultural backgrounds, not using gender or sexual orientation as a tool for division. There were no barriers or limitations — everyone was offered an equal chance at competing with one another. From Spoken Word to 2D Art to Short Film and even sport-oriented competitions, there was unmistakable talent emerging in every corner.

What struck me most was that this tournament had managed to bring together and unite the youth — it had managed to show us that we had the potential and the ability to be leaders, and our age could never deprive us of that.

This point was only driven home by the fact that young people had taken the initiative to organize and execute the event — a true sense of dedication and unity, something I was amazed and inspired by.

This past March, I competed in MIST for the very last time — I found myself taking in every minute of the deafening chants, the excitement at the awards ceremony, the color-coordinated teams, the judges with their ballots at the ready, the rap battles between breaks, the peaceful silence during prayer time, the harmonious snapping in the Spoken Word tournament, the photographers gathering students together for team pictures — every little moment felt incredibly special.

Jotting down Muslim Interscholastic Tournament” on my college resume didn’t feel like just another activity on a list of extracurriculars — I knew it was much more than that. MIST had become a second home for me, a safe-haven and a family to go back to every year. It had irrevocably altered my high school experience, shaped it into something empowering and beautiful. It had pushed me outside of my comfort zone, made me discover my potential, and given me a new sense of purpose. There are so many things in my life that I am inexplicably grateful for, and my experience at MIST is one I will forever cherish.

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Experience MIST — the thrill of competition, the excitement of trying something new, the serenity of being one human family. Find out here if it’s available in your area.

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View article on The Affinity Magazine: A Reflection on Four Incredible Years of Competing in MIST (Muslim Interscholastic Tournament)

Unfair and Lovely: A Movement

Fair and Lovely — the highly sought after skin lightening cream sold in nearly every store and marketplace I visited as a child in my hometown of Bangalore. I often found myself examining the models featured on every product, positioned in order from lightest to darkest; the fairest-skinned model being the focal point of the image. Commercial breaks advertised the brand religiously, using famous Indian actors and actresses to endorse their products. I didn’t think too much of it then, but those advertisements were extremely transparent in the way they portrayed dark skin as something that needed “fixing.” They almost always depicted dark-skinned women staring at their reflection with resentment, criticizing themselves for not being able to get married or make a name for themselves; but as soon as they used the “magical cream” meant to beautify them, they’d instantly appear more confident and fulfilled.

Growing up, I was always praised for my fair complexion — constantly complimented and envied by middle-aged women who whispered in hushed voices about how I’d “never have a problem getting married someday.” My skin tone, they told me, was “rare” and something to “preserve” and that I should feel “grateful for being born this way.” Even as a child, I thought it odd and uncomfortable that I was treated so differently from my own relatives and friends, whose dark skin was used against them from day one. In the innocence of youth, however, I didn’t realize just how much of an impact these hurtful and demeaning sentiments could actually have.

Colorism, a term coined by American novelist Alice Walker, has been deeply ingrained in South Asian communities for generations. Lighter skin has been equated to a greater standard as something to strive and attain for, while darker skin is degraded and shamed, made out to be some kind of “curse” for those who “are forced to live with it.”

This prejudice against individuals with dark skin tones is prevalent to this day, with origins going back far before Europeans began to colonize the Indian subcontinent.

The caste system, though caste discrimination has been outlawed by the Indian government; still plays a tremendous role in shaping Indian society and the social hierarchy throughout South Asia. The system divides Hindus into different categories based on their status and privilege; granting rights to the upper castes (Brahmin) over the lower castes (Sudras). The wealthy in pre-colonial times were likely to spend more time indoors among their valuable possessions, unlike the less fortunate — the peasants and servants who worked tirelessly under the blazing hot sun. This essentially led to lighter skin being associated with the upper class; a symbol of wealth and prosperity. European colonization and influence, of course, only helped reinforce the idea that lighter skin and “whitewashed features” were more desirable and widely accepted.

Colorism is an issue affecting both men and women, but is definitely more pervasive toward the latter. Teaching young girls society’s idea of “perfection and beauty” and using that to raise them is so disgustingly toxic — spoonfeeding concepts about “risk factors” involved in exposing oneself to the sun or making habits of using skin lightening regiments only leads to widespread discrimination that women are likely to face for the rest of their lives. There’s already so much negativity and sexism thrown at them from day one for simply being a girl, but add the color of their skin to the mix, and they face rejection and discrimination on a much larger scale.

Though most of the South Asian population is dark skinned, film industries and modeling agencies constantly look for the lightest possible person to feature in their work. They’re given starring roles, applauded for their beautiful complexion; while darker skinned models and actors (perhaps those even more talented than their counterparts) are shoved into the background, left with short and meaningless roles. I grew up an avid fan of Bollywood films, but looking back now it is undoubtedly evident that there was a lack of true and honest representation within the casts.

Representation matters — that feeling of belonging and confidence in one’s potential is worth fighting for.

Recently, there’s been an upsurge in campaigns seeking to eradicate the concept of colorism and bring about change for more inclusive societies. Nandita Das, an Indian actress and film director, became an activist for the “Dark is Beautiful” campaign against racism in the Indian media after being told to “lighten her skin” if she wanted to play upper-class roles. Though many argue that a mere campaign will not bring about the change she desires, Das says, “Prejudice or conditioning is not a habit; it’s much deeper than that. But we have to be hopeful and optimistic and believe that this can change within a generation.” 

Sabyasachi Mukherji, Indian fashion designer from Kolkata, has also gained widespread attention for hiring dark skinned models to pose in his elaborate and intricate designs; previously very uncommon in the modeling agency. More recently, a global campaign against colorism on social media launched by three students from the University of Texas at Austin sought to combat the under-representation of people of color in the media. The campaign, entitled “Unfair and Lovely“, asked dark-skinned South Asians to post their photos online and show that they stood in solidarity with the essential message of the campaign.

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Most of the millennial generation seems to have mastered the idea of celebrating diversity, but that does not mean colorism has been completely wiped off the slate. There are still growing stigmas against dark skin within South Asian families, both abroad and in our home countries. I had a conversation with a close friend not too long ago where we shared our concerns about this issue; about how we did not want our children, especially our daughters, to grow up hearing the anti-melanin sentiments we did. Young girls are especially prone to succumb to society’s standards and are more impressionable to the negative and unrealistic expectations forced upon them.

If we’re to see change in the coming generations, it’s our job as future parents or role models to step up and do our part in reminding our children that they are beautiful whether they’re light or dark, that their worth is never determined by what others deem to be ‘perfect’, that it’s okay to be unfair and lovely, and that beauty is never skin deep. We’re not about that life. And we never will be.

“What Will They Say About You?”

One of the most empowering things a woman can do for another woman is inspire her to come into herself and take charge of her own life; to find her passion and nurture it, regardless of what others may say or think. Having role models in women, especially when it comes to the fashion and apparel industry, is so integral in the upbringing of little girls who may very well grow up to become leaders themselves someday. Despite the sexist ideals drilled into our heads from day one, as women, we’re born warriors, independent and strong.

In a society where freedom is limited and sexism is a rapidly growing concern, it’s even more essential to fight against the norm rather than comply to it.

Nike Middle East recently released a powerful advertisement geared toward Arab and Muslim women, touching on the stigmas that surround them in regards to their active lifestyles.

The advertisement opens in the streets of suburban Dubai, with a hijabi woman nervously peering outside her door before breaking into a run, an older woman staring her down with unmistakable animosity. The scene cuts to another young woman skateboarding down the streets in her abaya as a middle-aged man looks on with a glare. Despite the hostile stares that follow the ladies featured in the commercial, they continue to engage in activities like parkour, boxing, swimming, and ice-skating; breaking barriers at every step.

The voiceover, narrated by an Arabic-speaking woman, seeks to motivate the athletes for defeating the odds. “What will they say about you? That you shouldn’t be out here? That it’s unladylike? That you’re not built for this? Or maybe… they’ll say you’re strong. That you can’t be stopped. That you always find a way. That you make it look easy. That you make it look good. Or maybe… they’ll say you’re the next big thing.”  

The ad drew interest and applause from around the globe, arriving soon after Nike announced its focus on equality and strength for its 2017 campaigns. In a statement released in early February, the company said:

“Equality is about Nike raising its voice and using the power of sport to stand up for the value of equality and to inspire people to take action in their communities.”

Sara Alzawqari, a spokesperson for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Iraq, took to Twitter to show her support for the commercial: “When an ad touches on the insecurities of women in a society, digs deeper & becomes an empowerment tool rather than just a product.” 

It’s time other companies also took the initiative to use their brands as a tool for progressive change and bring light to the issues and concerns plaguing our communities today.

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*Watch the advertisement here.

Solidarity: Our Greatest Weapon

Election Night proved to be one of the hardest and most stressful nights of my life, with my anxiety skyrocketing as the results slowly pooled in. Restless, I couldn’t get a moment’s shut-eye and was scrolling endlessly through my Facebook and Twitter feeds, seeing nothing but bewildered reactions that matched my own to the horror story unfolding in real-time. My phone screen blinked with incoming messages that I didn’t bother to check until the early hours of the next day, every shred of hope I’d held on to seemingly shattered for good.

A text from an unknown number was buried under the various unread messages, and I clicked into it, my mood worsening at the thought of it being some type of scam. As I scanned the message, my heart sped up and before I knew it, I was typing back the sincerest ‘thank you’ I could fathom. A classmate I hadn’t spoken to in years became my beacon of hope that day. “You and your family are not alone. I will fight through this with you.” As a young Indian-American Muslim, I felt nothing but overwhelming gratitude towards her and a revived sense of optimism for the road that lay ahead.

I’d initially anticipated the coming years to be some of the most divisive in American history, but I was pleasantly surprised as unity was celebrated on a much larger scale.

Immediately following the inauguration, a worldwide protest led by women and advocating for the rights of all marginalized groups made headlines as the largest single-day demonstration in U.S. recorded history. The Women’s March on Washington drew men and women alike, political activists, speakers, and celebrities; all of whom used their platforms to advocate for a variety of issues, ranging from immigration and health-care reform to the environment and freedom of religion. Protesters held their bright and colorful signs high, and their genuine spirit could be felt even to those who watched the march in the comfort of their homes. The wind carried their enthusiastic chants, and what looked like a sea of pink from above reflected the marchers’ unmistakable passion. I remember feeling a sense of renewed hope as I watched Americans of all backgrounds gather together in solidarity for their fears of being singled out and persecuted on the grounds of religion, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality.

More than anything, I understood where their fears and anxieties stemmed from. I’d seen and felt it firsthand; those years spent in middle school dreading the day 9/11 would be the topic of conversation in every class, and the accusatory glares at the brownest kid in the room at the mere mention of the word “Muslim.” The judgmental stares at the girl walking by in a hijab, the reluctance with which people sat next to her on the school bus. The constant weight on your shoulders of having to prove yourself, as if somehow your life’s work is to be a diplomat representing all of Islam. Trump’s rhetoric only added fuel to the fire, and it felt as though I was suddenly in the midst of a battle, with the opposing army gaining momentum, determined to crush me into the dirt and make me invisible.

But the signs that stood in harmony with Muslims, the campaigns that sought to combat Islamophobia, the mosques that received empathetic letters from their neighbors, the immigration lawyers that willingly volunteered their time and efforts to helping airport detainees, the curiosity on the part of non-Muslims wanting to know more about Islam, and even the opportunities presented to minorities to be spokespersons and activists — it all made me feel unbelievably thankful that there was something good coming out of what was once deemed a hopeless situation. The more The Orange Administration tried shutting people like me out, the more we seemed to be rising to the top. The more they tried to bend and break us, we patched up the scars and continued to fight.

Trump may have hoped to segregate this country and fill it with his hateful ideologies, but it’s clear that even he is now realizing that we are not a force to be reckoned with.

We’re powerful when we’re together, and have proven to accomplish more in showing the world the essence of the “American dream” than Trump could ever attempt to. His policies and rhetoric aren’t going to drown out our voices, if anything this will set an example for the generations to come that the only effective way to throw oppression off balance is to combat it with love, stand in solidarity for justice, and celebrate identity and diversity.

 

View on The Affinity Magazine: Solidarity Is Our Greatest Weapon Against The Babbling Buffoon

Gandhi, The Problematic “Hero”

It comes as quite a shock when the man you grew up believing to be a “saint” actually had dark, twisted secrets that history neglects to accentuate. For the first seven years of my life, I grew up in Bangalore, India, and naturally, I was taught to blindly admire and respect one of India’s greatest politicians and activists. The newspapers I’d see my grandfather reading constantly praised Mahatma Gandhi for his unwavering heroism, and the black-and-white pictures of the man in the traditional dhoti were embedded in my mind as a face to the glorious name.

Looking back now, it’s truly appalling that I was so evidently misled. It wasn’t until my seventh-grade social studies class when my teacher introduced the syllabus by simply scribbling a quote on the blackboard — “history is written by the winners” — that I began to do my own research. I uncovered numerous articles and documentaries hidden behind those that educators would force down their students’ throats, and came to the very gruesome realization that the way we’re taught history today is literally brainwashing us.

Mildly put, Mahatma Gandhi, behind his reputation of being a peaceful protester and whimsical leader, was a racist and misogynist. 

The Racist 

Ashwin Desai, a professor of sociology at the University of Johannesburg, and Goolam Vahed, a professor of history at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, spent years studying and compiling the story of Gandhi’s time in South Africa. In 2015, they published a book called The South African Gandhi: Stretcher-Bearer of Empire which highly emphasized Gandhi’s “whitewashed” past and his derogatory comments against the indigenous African peoples. Desai and Vahed wrote that Gandhi went out of his way to segregate Indians from Africans, despite their struggles being similar in the sense that both races were oppressed and denied rights on the basis of their skin color. Gandhi had a very clear stance about who he believed to be the “superior races” — they were that of the Aryan brotherhood and the civilized Indians.

In an interview with a BBC correspondent, Desai said: “To the extent that he wrote Africans out of history or was keen to join with whites in their subjugation he was a racist. To the extent that he accepted white minority power but was keen to be a junior partner, he was a racist.”  While it may be true that Gandhi had no choice but to comply to the whitewashing of South Africa, he was still a willing participant. He still refused to lend a hand to the African people who so desperately needed help against English persecution.

In 1947, Gandhi was interviewed by Louis Fischer, a Jewish-American journalist, and author of The Life of Mahatma GandhiGandhi’s views on the Holocaust were revealed in arguably his most controversial statement: “Hitler killed five million Jews. It is the greatest crime of our time. But the Jews should have offered themselves to the butcher’s knife. They should have thrown themselves in the sea from cliffs… It would have aroused the world and the people of Germany… As it is, they succumbed anyway in their millions.” 

The Misogynist

Before delving into the uncomfortable history of Gandhi and the numerous young women associated with him, it’s important to discuss his relationship with his own wife. He frequently used her as his punching bag; as quoted in Gandhi: The True Man Behind Modern India: “I simply cannot bear to look at Ba’s face. The expression is often like that on the face of a meek cow and gives one the feeling as a cow occasionally does, that in her own dumb manner she is saying something.” 

The biographical film Gandhi (1982) inaccurately portrayed Gandhi’s marriage as an optimistic, well-told love story. In an article published by the Commentary Magazine, Richard Greiner, the journal’s most frequent movie critic, highlighted the truth behind Kasturba Gandhi‘s death, which did not make it to the screen. Diagnosed with pneumonia, British doctors recommended penicillin to cure her, but Gandhi refused to inject his wife with the “alien” life-saving medication that he later used on himself to treat his own malaria.

In his time in South Africa, two of his female followers were harassed by a young man, leading him to forcibly chop off their hair so they didn’t warrant any unwanted sexual attention. He wrote about the incident later, emphasizing the message to all Indian women that they were responsible for their own sexual assaults. In order to test his celibacy, he slept naked with young women without touching them to test his sexual patience. Among the many young women was his own great-niece.

Sorry-not-sorry for bursting your bubble. 

Too often these issues are brought up and brushed off as “minor flaws,” but the real reason behind that is simply people’s inability to accept that “great men” are not always great. It’s people’s stubborn stance that prominent figures throughout history cannot be held to the same standard as normal human beings.

Gandhi was by no means the “perfect human being” that history books, biographies and society itself often paints him to be. There are cracks in that painting, too many to count; and it is just another example of how we need to take charge of our own knowledge so that we don’t find ourselves blinded by ignorance.

That being said, while I admire the cause for which Gandhi dedicated a good portion of his life, I wholeheartedly condemn the leader behind it.

 

View on The Affinity Magazine: Gandhi Was Ridiculously Problematic, But History Won’t Tell You That 

Mental Health in Muslim Communities

Let’s speak about the unspoken for a moment. Isn’t it ironic how the Quran mentions battling trials and tribulations time and again, but so many of us fail to recognize that these hardships aren’t always transparent? That perhaps, pain exists on a much larger scale than we perceive — that it is not always physical?

There is a growing stigma that has surrounded mental illness for generations, particularly within Muslim families and communities. It is a generally taboo topic, brushed off, ignored, and sometimes completely neglected as a legitimate health concern. Rooted in old-school beliefs and cultural traditions, the toxicity encompassing mental health has affected nearly every individual who feels the need to suppress their illness to avoid confrontation and shame.

The illness itself is a burden and the negativity surrounding it only adds to the weight.

Muslims are taught from a young age that prayer solves anything and everything. While it is true that a strong spiritual connection can have a positive impact on one’s overall behavior and attitude, salah and dhikr, or the lack of implementing both, are constantly defined as causes of mental illness. This “rationale” is practically spoon-fed to us throughout our lives; so does it really come as a surprise that a study conducted in 2006 with 35 individuals from an Arab-Australian community found that this stigma was the very reason many were hesitant to access mental health services and facilities? Fear of judgment and fear of expulsion from one’s own community should never be reasons Muslims, young and old, use to justify not seeking the help they need.

The prospects of “not being religious enough” or “not having enough faith in God” breeds guilt within those silently suffering through their illness, leading them to believe “they did this to themselves.” That somehow, they “chose” this when they missed Asr prayer that one time or didn’t say bismillah before digging into a meal.

Another study conducted in 2000 among Pakistani families in the U.K. found that not one person was willing to so much as associate with a mentally ill person, much less consider a close relationship with them. The fear of one’s own illness being dismissed, almost degraded as though it is a test for every person associated with the mentally ill, is another heartbreaking reason many Muslims keep their inner struggles to themselves.

So, the question arises: what can be done to end the stigma surrounding mental health?

The good news is, it’s never too late to start implementing changes in our communities. The root of the problem lies in the fact that so many people, especially among the older generation, are unaware of the fact that mental health is a serious concern. If cancer and heart disease can be the topic of conversation in a Friday khutbah, so can anxiety, depression, suicide, PTSD and autism. Knowledge is everything, when a topic such as this is recognized and not shunned from conversation, it results in a ripple effect of acceptance and acknowledgment.

So many of our peers, friends, and family alike look to their communities for validation. As an active community member, you can take a stand and contribute your efforts in developing programs, such as religiously-based support groups, that welcome Muslims to speak openly about their illness. It’s high time we lifted this veil of shame from anything remotely connected to mental illness. It’s high time we validated the struggles of our brothers and sisters. Let’s start now, and collectively work toward making our communities a safe haven for the generations to come.

 

*View on The Affinity MagazineLet’s Address That Mental Health Stigma, My Fellow Muslims

She Is Everything.

She is a woman of God and stature, weaving through the cobblestone streets with her brightly colored scarf prominent amongst the crowd. Grace and humility cling to her like a luxurious fragrance, turning heads in silent awe. Her eyes are a mystery, fierce and determined. She is a rose among thorns, a beauty to behold.

She is thick, unruly hair and dark skin as smooth as velvet. Her eyes carry the pain of those before her, but she remains poised in spite of it. Her back holds the weight of a thousand cries she uses to fuel her strength. She is utterly indestructible, a mountain holding the ends of the earth together.

She is curves and sharp features, steady hands revealing stories of courage in trying times. Her voice is a haunting melody, her words like songs and prayers the world longs to hear. She is the permanent crease in her forehead, a symbol of all that she has endured. She is all the broken, cracked pieces she assembled herself, a warrior and a queen.

She is poetry in itself, endless lines and stanzas of pain and joy and hope and survival. She is the heart that plants flowers in desolate fields, the heart that battles against its oppressors, the heart that allows tears to flow freely just as abundantly as it allows laughter. She is the heart that feels deeply, that gives freely, that loves fiercely.

Her bright and beautiful soul shines like a torch, lighting the path of everyone she touches with it. She is ethereal and exquisite, made of silver and gold. She is everything and she will apologize for nothing.

{S.M.}

*Artwork by: Vicki (https://twitter.com/vickisigh)

Shipwrecked.

I had lain awake countless nights wondering why my heart felt numb.

Why the four walls of my room suffocated me; why I could not bear to look at myself in the mirror too long without my stomach clenching and my throat tightening — pain that was impossible to swallow, pain I could not hide. Why my happiness was only short lived before exhaustion crept its way in, snuffing out the last of the golden embers.

I became an expert in pretending to be okay; while the walls inside me crumbled, leaving an open gateway for the ashes drifting into my home.

I could barely recognize that place anymore. My safe haven became a torture chamber, and my silent cries drowned out the rest of the world.

I am lost. For the first time I let myself believe it. I let my unshed tears fall freely as I cupped my hands together and raised them towards You.

And I spoke. With everything I had left in me, I spoke to You. I have nothing. I put all my faith in this world and now I am drowning. 

I stood at Your door broken and battered for the thousandth time, the guilt of one too many second-chances circling around me like a terrible storm. And yet. And yet you opened it.

I am lost. I have been lost for longer than I am afraid to say. I have been wandering this shipwreck searching for my freedom, but the ruins all look the same and the exits lead nowhere. Save me. Save me. Save me.

~

At last, my limbs began to move. I thrust against the current and fought to make it to shore. That first breath of air became my salvation.

I no longer stood with my hands on my knees, bent before a false throne; but before Yours. And You planted a garden in my heart. In the place of thorns and weeds grew wildflowers.

I came to You a broken servant, having failed you a thousand times…

but Your Mercy sent me home cleansed of my scars and purged of my darkness.

{S.M}

 

Rape Trivialization & Consent.

Disclaimer: If this issue is triggering to you, it’d be best if you stop reading now — the last thing I’d want to do is cause you pain or discomfort. If this issue makes you uncomfortable because it’s not talked about often, especially by someone younger, I’d strongly advise you to continue reading. Choosing to act as though an issue doesn’t exist simply because you think it doesn’t concern you personally makes you part of the problem. This is the reality we live in. This is the reality that can be changed, if only we’re aware of it and advocate for a better one.

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You might’ve heard of the term “rape culture” before in passing. Take a moment to let those two words sink in. What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of the word “rape”? You’ve probably heard or read horrific stories about it and felt your blood boil with rage and your heart sink in despair. One syllable. Four letters. Some people have to live with that word circling their minds forever. Because the feeling of being touched against your will never goes away. Because the pain you felt in the moment and the pain you felt when it was over will nag at you for the rest of your life. That is the fate of a victim. Now think of the word “culture”. It’s humanity. It’s society. It’s tradition. It’s customs. It’s art, and music, and literature, and philosophy. But it’s also mentality. And in the world we live in, this mentality is becoming more toxic than ever.

Rape culture. Can you imagine? That disgusting word joined with people’s way of thinking. Imagine someone pointing out a girl in a short skirt and a tank top and then turning to you and saying, “God, is she asking for it or what?” Imagine watching the news and seeing reporters argue about whether a rape victim brought it upon themselves when they got drunk at a party and passed out, unaware of what was happening to them. Imagine a woman in a business suit and high heels walking down the streets of New York City, when suddenly she hears catcalls that follow long after she’s asked for them to stop. Guess what? You don’t have to imagine, because this happens for real every day. Rape culture is a concept that’s been institutionalized in our society that makes sexual violence inevitable. To put it simply: we allow it to happen. We allow it when we slut shame, victim blame, and objectify bodies. We allow it when we make it okay for rapists to get off with a light sentence. We allow it when we don’t blink an eye at a cry for help. We allow it when we stick to the belief that “only women get raped” and laugh when the roles are reversed. We allow it when many cases of rape go unreported because of rape culture itself — when victims are too afraid to press charges or testify in the fear of what people will say or think and whether they’ll get the justice they deserve.

Now, think about the words “yes” and “no”. We’ve been saying them for as long as we can remember; from the moment we could speak and understand. To say yes is to agree. To say no is to disagree. And all the little phrases that we use in between, like “I don’t want to” or “not right now” or “of course” or “all right” all mean the same thing. So why then, is it so hard to understand the meaning of yes and no when it comes to consent? Consent has always meant and will always mean the same thing: permission, approval, agreement. You’ll be surprised (or maybe not) at how many times rapists have argued that “they were unsure” of what the victim meant when they said “I don’t want to” or “not right now”. There is absolutely no way either of those phrases can be translated to “yes”. But at some point society has made it okay for people to believe that “I don’t want to” or “not right now” isn’t enough of a reason. It is. It is more than enough of a reason. Simply having the gut feeling that tells you no is enough to justify every choice you will ever make for the rest of your life.

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Being drunk doesn’t guarantee consent. Being passed out doesn’t guarantee consent. Reluctance doesn’t guarantee consent. However someone may dress or wherever they may go, yes will always mean yes and no will always mean no. A protest will always be a protest. A cry for help will always be a cry for help. 

I beg you all to understand that rape is not an issue to be taken lightly. It is not an issue to be brushed off and trivialized. It is not an issue you can ignore because it doesn’t affect you. It does. How can you be indifferent to it when it affects the people around you? Whether you know them or not, whether you’ll remember their names tomorrow or not, it will continue to be an impending problem unless everyone stands together to do something about it. And that starts, first and foremost, by making yourself as aware as possible. It starts when you let go of the negativity and toxicity of rape culture. It starts when you educate yourself and the next generation on the meaning of consent. Because tomorrow depends on today. What we do now, the choices we make, can either make or break tomorrow’s reality.

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In Relation: A former Stanford student who sexually assaulted an unconscious woman was sentenced to six months in jail because a longer sentence would have “a severe impact on him,” according to a judge. Read the powerful letter written by the woman to her attacker here.