My “Traumatizing” Childhood

I think that Muslims, and anyone who grew up not being part of the mainstream population where they lived, make great comedians as adults. Sure, the scenarios us aliens faced as kids may have seemed traumatizing at the time, but in retrospect, I find mine quite funny now...and it seems as though others do as well. Having just finished Zarqa Nawaz’s sort-of-memoir “Laughing All the Way to the Mosque”, I found myself relating to many of her stories, as I am sure many of us can. It then got me thinking about how painful it was to grow up being so different from mainstream society, yet as an adult, that difference is valued, appreciated, and can be something that others want to learn about and laugh along with.

Who knew?

Sifting back through my memories growing up as a South-Asian Muslim girl in the UK and Canada, there are a few themes that really stick out. And so, I thought I’d compile my fondest memories of these vast differences, and how as an adult, I can look back and appreciate how seeing the humour in these situations makes me deal with the difficulty I went through during these situations as a child.

And believe me, these issues were difficult.

Muslim Girl Issue #1: Excessive Body Hair

“Why does Sameera have a moustache?” asked my 10-year old younger brother innocently, to my mom, in front of my very sensitive 17-year old face.

“She doesn’t,” I remember my mom replying gently. I’m sure she didn’t want to go through explaining secondary sex characteristics to my brother and HECK, I didn’t even know why I had been “blessed” with so much fur on my arms, legs, face and most embarrassingly, my face. I was a GIRL and I was just as hairy as my BROTHERS.

No, this is not me as a baby. Although I do wonder...
I have many “you’re too hairy!!” scenarios stored up from when I was a pre-teen and teen girl. Whether it was during my years at school in the UK where I was the darkest child of them all, complete with black hair adorning my arms and legs from the age of 8; or whether I was in junior high school in Saskatchewan where boys during French class indignantly stated that even they didn’t have as much arm hair as I did; or whether I look back at my old photos and wonder how two caterpillars ever remained glued above my eyes for all those years. I hated my excessive body hair and blamed my Pakistani dad more than my Iranian mom. I had seen my dad’s hairy “spaghetti” legs, as I called them, and I'm cursed with those genes that unfortunately my future children will have to deal with too.

And just as many Muslim girls were denied and Zarqa too in her novel, I was not allowed to shave or wax my legs. So what did I do? I snuck into my parents’ bathroom and stole a razor, shaving my legs wet in the shower and cutting myself far too much. I proudly wore shorts to gym class one or two times that week before the wretched hair grew back again. My mom then introduced to a form of torture known as epilation. Her contraption was old and consisted of a metal coil device that spun fervently and made a loud noise. I’d never experienced pain the way I did when she epilated my legs. Pure torture. As soon as I landed my first job and had a pay-check, I went and bought a much newer epilator that wasn’t so bad.

Don’t worry, future daughter, I will never do that to you...we’ll have waxing parties together.

And so, over the years, I’ve embraced my hairiness. The other day I was in Walmart shopping for (you guessed it) facial waxing strips. There was an older blond and much-less-hairier lady looking at the products and she seemed confused about which one to try. I was confused as to why she needed waxing products, but I really didn’t want to go there.

“I’ve been blessed with an abundance of body and facial hair thanks to my South Asian heritage, and have tried EVERY brand here...would it help if I shared my waxing product reviews?” I mentioned casually. I kid you not, I said this word for word.

She looked up relieved and smiled and said that it would help immensely. I then launched into reviews that were worthy of the Shopping Channel, and she settled upon my most favourite pick.

Who knew that being hairy could be so useful?

Muslim Girl (and Boy) Issue #2: The Stinky Foreign Lunch

As a kid growing up, a Thermos was my best friend. Bless my mom for always wanting us to have nutritious and filling lunches that required a spoon to eat them. Seriously, I appreciate all of her efforts now. But at the time, while other British and Canadian kids were eating sandwiches made with white bread, or (the jackpot) left-over pizza slices, I was eating rice and curries that were either brown or green, and didn’t smell so great to the unfamiliar noses of mainstream kids. Or, if I was blessed with sandwiches, they consisted of egg salad (stinky) or shami-kababs,  a Pakistani “burger” of sorts made with ground beef and chickpea flour, dipped in eggs and pan fried.

But what about salami, I would think to myself? Or chicken deli meat? I already stuck out with my hairiness, and now my food? I would beg friends to trade lunches with me, but who wanted brown and green food over white?

As I grew older and started to pack my own lunches, ironically, I wanted home cooked food more than sandwiches! I’m not sure if I had just become accustomed to weird stares, or whether as an older child and teen, it was “cool” to have different lunches. Also, increased diversity in the school I attended was greater, and Asian students brought Asian meals. European kids brought European meals. Hey, I didn’t stick out so much anymore.

And now, as I post pictures of meals on Instagram or recipes on Pinterest, people are all over them! Ethnic food is all the craze. The once stinky green Iranian curry growing up is now the envy of friends. Even within Calgary schools, given the diversity there is, I’m sure ethnic kids don’t mind eating home-cooked food that isn’t white PB and J sandwiches.

And if they do, I wouldn’t mind trading meals with them :)

Muslim Issue #3: Number 2

“Why aren’t you allowed to eat with your left hand?” I remember someone asking me when I was a teenager.

9-1-1, get me out of here! I never wanted to answer that question. I had to rack my brain each time this came up with a reasonable and not-so-gross explanation.

“Umm, the Devil cursed that hand...?” I mumbled once.

“Hey, is that a plane?” I exclaimed another time, pointing up towards the sky.

I have come to terms and I’m at peace with explaining to people the real reason why Muslims do not eat with their left hand. This article explains fairly well why, but in general, we use water to rinse our nether regions (I know, I should use the anatomical terms, but I’m not for humour's sake!) after using the bathroom. With number 2, we use our left hands to wash away any debris (ahem) as we rinse with water using a watering can/jug or lota, as it’s called in Urdu. In Europe and the Middle Eastern, toilets are often outfitted with bidets (see image) or hoses from the wall that make this task much easier. If I ever build my own house, hoses are the way I’ll go.

I love to travel, but hate it because I always have to pack my beloved lota or a water bottle with me. Water bottles are a nightmare since even though I don’t ask for room service, someone always has to come in anyway AND discard of my water bottle! To deal with this, I always pack my lota carefully into my suitcase, wrapped in multiple plastic bags, and hide it away in my suitcase when I leave my hotel room. Geez, the lengths Muslims go to for hygiene. But in all seriousness, hygiene is incredibly important within Islam, especially given that we bow down towards Allah five times a day.

So using water to rinse off is officially the most hygienic way to keep bacteria away from dark crevices and skid marks off your undies. Seriously. I think a lot of non-Muslims have adopted this way of cleaning themselves and are amazed at the results. I mean really people, it’s called soap and hand washing, so there’s nothing to worry about. Whatcha gonna do when you have kids and have to clean up their poo? Some of it is bound to get on your paws.

Better get used to it now.

Conclusion: Being different is cool...when you’re an adult

While the above scenarios were traumatizing at the time, I am officially not scarred as an adult. Kids are pretty resilient, and as an adult, I can be proud of being hairy, eating stinky food, and rinsing my nether areas with water. But all kids want is to fit in, it’s that simple. That’s THE reason why I was so self-conscious about these issues. I had stuck out when I was younger and thought that moving to Canada would help, but not in small town Saskatchewan. Things eased up in high school, where being different was the best thing you could be. Thank goodness for teenage rebellion.

I’m sure we’ve all faced our own share of embarrassing moments growing up, and as long as they weren’t too traumatizing, we can look back and talk about them with a sense of humour. I often share these stories and others with girls I come across, especially those who are shy, introverted, socially awkward and lack confidence, as I once was (I’m still socially awkward by the way). I let them know that they’re not alone, that we all feel self-conscious about something, and maturing into a teenager is one of the toughest transitions of their life. I let them know that it does get easier.

And that maybe one day, they too can write about and share their experiences with others. Since who knows, maybe their stories will help out a hairy South-Asian Muslim girl who eats stinky lunches.

Yeah...let’s not remind ourselves about the whole bathroom washing thing.

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