February 04, 2007

Seeing Ourselves

“Where are you frrrom??” is a common question asked of me by taxi drivers in the city. The next question that often follows: “Are you Muslim??” For some reason, this usually sends my eyes darting searchingly for their IDs, which are on display above them. This lets me know that they are Muslim.

Although by now I should be accustomed to this sort of interrogation, both the direct verbal form by cab drivers, and occasionally by restaurant waiters, as well as the indirect, visual form by airport officials when they see my last name (and right before X-tra screening), the question still jolts my senses.

Some of us, who relish living in a society organized around liberal principles do not enjoy being queried in this manner by utter strangers. Coming from acquaintances, it may be a different matter. For a while I assumed that the source of my discomfort was in the fact that there is a certain tone of judgement in the way the query is conducted. It may be relevant to note here that I don’t wear hijab.

But my unease is wrapped in some other feelings that, for a while, I couldn’t quite get to.

In his recent book about identity politics, Amartya Sen remarkably arrived at the root of these feelings. He explained how the “solitarist approach” to human identity, where individuals are seen as members of only one group, can often lead to bewilderment.

“Bewildered.” The word that most accurately describes my status in these situations.

Sen’s view is that we are happiest when the myriad identities within us are recognized. (He also goes on wonderfully about how the narrow perception and manipulation of identity can be used to instigate violence etc etc etc, but this is not a book review.)

Sen was in Washington last October. I sat in awe as he spoke about how communitarian notions of identity have sometimes corrupted policy, and diminished the scope for individual freedom. Each of his words rang true to me. They reminded me of scenes from my daily life, where at different times I wanted to be different things, but was assigned…some other identity.

Last week, in a cab somewhere between McPherson Square and Dupont Circle I found myself being pointedly asked again by the driver: “Are you Muslim?” I glanced at his dubious-looking brows in the rearview mirror for a second before replying: “Yes.”

He continued for a little while….something about our relationship with Allah and our “deen”. At that time I went from being “The Muslim Woman” to “The Woman Looking for Change in her Wallet” so I was only half-listening. When we reached our destination he turned around in his seat, looked me squarely in the eyes and concluded: “Also, please make sure you marry a Muslim man.”

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