The journey to accepting myself has been a long and ongoing one. Like many immigrant children or first generation Americans, I lived a different life at home and a different one at school. It didn’t bother me as a child because I would watch both Hollywood and Bollywood movies. I liked Hollywood It Girl Meg Ryan and Bollywood Superstar Madhuri Dixit equally, and identified with both of them, because that’s what my life was like: split into two halves. A part of me was American, couldn’t stop listening to “Larger Than Life” and thought she was genuinely going to marry Nick Carter at some point. And there was a part of me that that liked dancing to Bollywood songs and was convinced at age 4 that she would marry Shah Rukh Khan eventually.
As I grew older, particularly during my pre-teen and teenage years, I did everything to keep my identities separate. I was American sometimes and sometimes I was Indian -never simultaneously both- because it was all I had ever known. One simply couldn’t be both. And to top it off, I was a young Muslim girl, growing up in post 9/11 America, where I felt like I didn’t deserve to be proud of my faith. Being Muslim made me the odd one out in the small rural town in east Texas where I lived. And if I’m honest with myself, on some level, I tried to push that part of my identity deep down, where no one could see it, because I was tired of answering questions that shouldn’t have been directed towards me at the first place. Unfortunately, in doing this, I became very fractured.
Compartmentalizing works when it comes to scheduling debate practice, studying for your calculus test, meeting with your group for the science project that’s due next week and making sure you’re at tennis practice long enough to get in a good amount of practice. It was fine when I had to be at a UIL meet one day and a Student Council event the next day. But compartmentalizing is meant for tasks, not one’s identities.
It wasn’t until I went to college that I began accepting my various identities. I went from being in an environment where I was the only one who looked and prayed like me to being in an environment that embraced everyone for their identities. I also went from constantly explaining the same thing again and again to simply being able to celebrate and partake in my favorite Indian and Muslim festivities. I finally had friends who understood what it was like to grow up the way I did-in a bilingual, bicultural household and the struggles that came with that. I was no longer the “Indian, Muslim girl.” I could simply be “Saher.”
The more comfortable with myself I became, the less I cared what others thought of me. Also, because I wasn’t constantly explaining myself, I didn’t feel constantly judged. I wasn’t naive enough to think racism and sexism weren’t still my reality, but I figured that I would try my best to use the education I had been privileged to receive to continue to propel me forward. Because I finally had a support system who understood what it was like to be me and I knew I could lean on them without having to constantly re-educate them.
Today, I’m proud to be South Asian-American in a country where being white means your experiences are valid and being brown means you are seen as foreign and suspect. Today, I’m proud to be a woman in a society where there are still people who think women are the weaker gender. Today, I’m proud to be Muslim in a world that constantly maligns my entire faith over the acts of a handful of horrendous people claiming my faith as their own.
Today, I have let all of those fractured parts of me fuse together to make me whole.