My first recollection of realizing that I was “different” was in the 4th grade. My father learned that I was taking part in a class play. During part of the play we were re-enacting a 1970s American beer commercial. It was tons of fun. It involved an imaginary bull bursting into a bar. My father rushed into my school in a rage, took me by my hand, removed me in front of my friends from where we were rehearsing, and led me to my teacher. He had a talk with the teacher and later that evening had a talk with me at home. We are Muslims. We do not drink alcohol. We do not pretend we are drinking alcohol. Period.
In high school, my father insisted that I stop wearing pants and that, instead, I wear skirts with long socks. I was also only allowed to pull my long hair back into a pony tail. This was how my father imposed modesty on a 14-year-old girl growing up in American society. It was a little strange for me in the beginning. I was something of a tomboy as a girl. But I was generally fine with it. I was different. That was the way things were. I was comfortable in my own skin the way I was or at least the way I was told to be at that age. I was fine. All my friends in school were fine about it. Except, that is, for the greasers, or at least that’s what I think the other kids called them. I’ve never figured out what that word means, but they were different too. They were generally from a rural upbringing and from less fortunate families. They were less educated and many of them smoked and probably did a lot of other stuff. The greasers didn’t like me. I was too “different” for them. I distinctly remember coming into school one snowy morning, taking off my hood, and a greaser put his empty soda can in my hood while saying with a sarcastic tone, “Hi, religious girl.” I just rolled my eyes. It caused me no anxiety whatsoever. They were different. I was different. Who cares? There are more important things to focus our energies on in life. So I did.
When I settled in Egypt to go to university at the age of 17, I became the “American girl”. My Egyptian accent was not yet perfected and everyone could tell I was different. I spoke differently. My personality was different. I was more confident and independent than my colleagues were used to seeing from people our age. I also wore my hijab differently than the other girls. I was never into perfecting the head-scarf wrap. I couldn’t bother taking the time necessary to figure it out. So I just wrapped a plain-colored cotton scarf around my head. It was easy and it didn’t take any time. I was different. Who cares?
I eventually decided to wear the face veil. My father was adamantly against it. So were some of my friends. I didn’t care. It was something I wanted to do so I was going to do it. I was convinced in my heart that wearing the face veil was the right thing for me at the time. I was different. What’s the big deal?
After eight years of wearing the face veil, I decided for a variety of reasons that it was no longer the right thing for me. I eventually took it off. I became different again. It wasn’t a big deal.
I then modified the way I clothed from wearing hip-long scarves and wide flowing dresses to wearing shorter scarves and shirts over jeans. I became different again. And eventually, I took off the hijab and became different once more.
I was never only different in the way I dressed. My whole mannerism was always different from one clique or another. I never perfectly blended in with any one group. But no matter how different I ever was, there have always been people who accept me the way I am. And there have always been people who have not.
Over the past few years I’ve been spoken of by some as the Muslim conservative and by others as the Muslim liberal. I never properly fit in. Ever. But I always have “people”.
I’m different. I always have been. Who cares? I never have.
There’s a part of me that needs to be part of a group; something I never felt as a teenager but I feel now as a full-grown adult. I suppose that despite my differentness, I have felt for a part of my adult life that I belonged to “a group” beyond the borders of my always-loving friends and family. I did as “the group” did. I held similar values to theirs. We believed in similar ways. I could relate to “the group”. I felt generally accepted by them.
But now – again – I am different. And without requiring much evidence of it, “the group” does not accept me for who I am. And it bothers me.
“The group” is not my family and friends. With my family and friends I am not part of a group. I just am. I do not need to feel that I belong to them or them to me. Our relationship is so much deeper than belonging. It is being.
Just because I can be with my family and friends does not negate an inner desire to belong to a group or to be accepted by one. At the same time, experience has taught me to be wary of “groups” and “group” mentality. It is this group mentality that is causing me to be different again. In my heart, I still belong to “the group”. But I understand “the group” to be different from what it currently understands itself to be. I cannot accept the group for who they are and many of them cannot accept me for who I have become.
And so I am different. Longing for “the group”. But will “the group” ever be?