We recently celebrated St. George’s Day here in England, the day of the country’s patron saint. My children dressed in red, white and blue for their schools’ St. George’s celebrations. For most people this is no longer a celebration tied to religion, but about celebrating all things English. I have always felt very conflicted about my identity—am I English, British, Pakistani, Punjabi or none of these? Can you be more than one?
Growing up, my parents made it very clear to me that we were Pakistani. However, I could relate to so many things English–literature, culture, the tolerance of difference, the beauty of the countryside. A part of me wanted to proudly say I was English. Another part of me had a very strong feeling that as a person with brown skin, who dressed and lived differently, I would be a laughing stock for saying so. I felt I would not be accepted as English, a British Pakistani perhaps as a stretch, but definitely not English.
As an adult, I realise now that over time my identity formed around faith. I was first and foremost a Muslim, nationality meant nothing. I was part of a global community of Muslims who were my family regardless of race or nationality. Yet, a longing to belong persisted/remained. Every time a British athlete won a medal I felt proud. Every time England played football, I rooted for them.
When I had my children, I began to revisit my thinking around identity. Surely as the fourth generation of my family in this country, they wouldn’t have to question who they were? But who were they? I decided there had to be a cut-off point for immigrants—after four generations in this country I could say now that they were English?
It was a strange process for me to come to this conclusion. I knew little about my roots and my family origins. Before my grandmother died, I sat down with her, pen and notebook in hand, and asked her who were we? Where did we come from? Were we always “Arain,” the Punjabi farming caste? (She thought the last questions was rather silly—“Of course we have always been Arain!”).
As she wound her way back through the years with stories and information about our family tree, I felt goose bumps. So this is what it was to belong to a people, to have come from somewhere, to have roots. Funny enough, knowing my ancestry didn’t hold me back in claiming an identity—it freed me to move forward and claim the place I lived in now as my own.
Another instance that contributed to my thinking about identity was a throwaway remark from a work colleague and good friend. We were discussing how sometimes people looked at my dress (abaya and hijab) and assumed I couldn’t speak English. She laughed, “Don’t be ridiculous, you’re as English as they come!” It stopped me in my tracks a little—maybe I was. After all, I realised that Muslim values align very closely with traditional English values—modesty, fairness and tolerance.
A few years ago, England was playing in the football world cup. The kids wore the team t-shirt and had their faces painted with the flag. We lost to Germany early in the tournament, rather painfully. You should have seen my then seven-year-old daughter shouting at the television and abusing the team every time Germany scored (I am convinced she would make a great team manager for England one day).
Later that day, we visited a charity bazaar. I was stopped by a lady who told me off for letting the children paint their faces. She was offended by Muslim children wearing a flag with a Christian cross on their faces. I wasn’t angry with the lady; there was no malice in her. She genuinely believed in what she was saying.
I smiled and walked away, but the incident raised genuine questions in my mind—could I be Muslim and English? Was it wrong to wear the English or British flags as a Muslim? I suspect many British people would say that it doesn’t matter, it’s not about religion, but the cross is still right there.
Two years later, with England playing football at Euro 2012 and the Olympics coming to London, I feel proud to be a Londoner and yes, English. I am hoping we win in football and I am rooting for Team Great Britain to win as many medals as possible. And what about celebrating St. George’s Day as a Muslim? St. George was half-Palestinian and half-Turkish and died a monotheist. He is claimed as a martyr by Muslims as well as Christians, so there is no issue of celebrating.
In the end, my youngest son, age five, resolved the issue of identity for me. He declared to his dad, “Me and mum are English, you and grandma are Pakistani.” That’s settled then. I always knew my children were English anyway. The boys sleep with their socks on and none of them can tolerate chili peppers.
© 2012, Umm Salihah. All rights reserved.