Welcome to Muslim Voices Rise Up, a month-long project taking place during Ramadan where Muslim authors and bloggers share their experiences on various topics. This project is dedicated to centering Muslim experiences and showcasing the diversity within our own narratives. You can find more info, along with other blog posts for this project, on the introduction post. On this blog post, author Nadine Jolie Courtney will be talking all about her experience as a white passing Muslim woman in a world that puts white people above all else. It’s a very open and honest piece that I really encourage everyone to read until the end.
Islam is not a monolith.
It’s a phrase we often hear on Twitter, and one that I discuss in my upcoming YA novel All-American Muslim Girl. However, in the “real” world, the idea that Muslim girls come in all ethnicities, colors, nationalities, and backgrounds seems to be shocking—especially when that Muslim girl is somebody who looks like me.
Green eyes. Blond hair. Hijab-free.
I can’t really blame people for being confused. I spent my childhood feeling confused, too.
I grew up in a Muslim household in the 1980’s, the daughter of a Jordanian father of Circassian descent and a blond Catholic cheerleader from Miami who converted to Islam when she married my dad. We had a weird, unpronounceable last name, and my father’s accent was strong. When he got truly angry, he’d yell in Arabic and that’s how I knew I was in serious trouble. With my dad’s facial features but my mother’s coloring, I was a perennial blond sheep: too white for my family, too exotic for my friends. (I’m sure it’s purely a coincidence that, after my best friend’s narrow-minded mother found out we were Muslims in 4th grade, I was no longer allowed to come over.)
To make matters more confusing, though we were Muslims (as my father would occasionally remind me—say, chastising me for buying a cheap cross necklace from Claire’s that I liked because my friend had one, too), we didn’t really behave like it. My parents didn’t pray. Drank alcohol. Celebrated Christmas. Didn’t even fast for Ramadan. Bacon, though: that was where they drew the line. Worst of all, time and again my father would tell me to “hide” that I was a Muslim. People will judge you, my dad always said. That fear, that feeling of having a secret I needed to hide, of fundamentally being someone other people would judge—it wormed its way deep into my soul and has taken years to undo.
While my visibly Muslim grandmother, aunts, and cousins were subjected to ugly Islamophobia, mine was of the pedestrian, stealth, calorie-free variety. Islamophobia-lite. I’d hear the shift in voices or see the shadow that passed over faces when people realized my family’s religion. I’d get “complimented” on how non-Muslim or American I seemed. People would insult Muslims in front of me, their disgust shocking, blissfully unaware that the Muslims they were disparaging was disparaging me, too.
It wasn’t always ugly bigotry. Sometimes it was just discomfort. Confusion as they tried to fit me neatly into a box. People awkwardly, concernedly asking if I prayed. If I drank. Code for: am I normal? Am I like them? Am I a good Muslim or a bad Muslim? You know: a scary Muslim? As a basic white-looking girl dripping in privilege, the furtive Islamophobia I’m privy to would break your heart.
It’s broken mine time and again.
So eventually I did everything I could to make myself fit: keeping the secret, stuffing myself into that box, desperately trying to look like my friends, making myself as American as possible.
Because, surely, being American meant being not-Muslim.
Throughout my teens and 20s, I dyed my hair blond, blonder, blondest, experimented with colored contacts, worshipped at the altar of preppy Americana icons like Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, and did everything I could to shed my Muslim identity. I changed my impenetrable last name. I knew the difference between my Laphroaig and my Lagavulin. I liked my bacon extra-crispy.
It wasn’t all haram. I took Arabic lessons, learning to read and write the language my father always refused to teach me. I traveled to the Middle East for the first time as an adult. I bought a Qu’ran. I finally, properly learned to pray.
Occasionally, I’d return to a story I had saved on my computer, about a white-passing girl who grappled with her privilege and place, growing into her own as she proudly embraced her Islamic heritage. And inevitably, I’d close the document and banish it to the furthest recesses of my mind. Nobody wanted to hear about me being a Muslim.
Looking back now, I realize whether other people wanted to hear the story was irrelevant. I wasn’t yet ready to tell it.
It wasn’t until the Muslim Ban that something inside of me shifted. While watching live footage of protesters at JFK airport, tears clouding my vision, I reopened the document and began furiously writing. That day was a game-changer: white people, Jewish people, Americans of all stripes showing up in droves to stand up for their Muslim compatriots and shout down bigotry. It was something I would have thought unthinkable in my childhood. During that time of hatred and fear, another emotion struggled to make itself known: hope.
The girl who had been burned by bigotry one too many times, who felt guilty and ashamed she wasn’t Muslim enough, who had been cautioned by her father that people would treat her differently if they knew she was Muslim—that was the day that girl finally stopped hiding.
And once I stopping being ashamed of who I am—proudly embracing my messy, confusing, doesn’t-fit-neatly-in-a-box heritage—that’s when, hamdulillah, I felt free.
About the author
Nadine Jolie Courtney is the author of the upcoming YA novel All-American Muslim Girl (November 12, 2019, FSG), as well as the YA novel Romancing the Throne, and two adult books: Confessions of a Beauty Addict, and Beauty Confidential. A graduate of Barnard College, her articles have appeared in Town & Country, Angeleno, OprahMag.com, and Vogue.com. She lives in Santa Monica, California, with her family.
That’s it for today’s post friends! Make sure to check out all the previous posts (they’re linked in the introduction post) and to follow along until the end!
A million thanks to Aimal for the graphic!
Hope you enjoyed, write to you soon.