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I Never Liked My Last Name. But It Was My Muslim Identity I Was Really Running Away From

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My full name is Ayesha Aleem. Ayesha, as I’ve been told and I’ve learnt through the years, is a popular, ‘pretty girl’ name. Khaled and Outlandish have sung about it. Sonam Kapoor has played a rich fashionable character of this name in a Bollywood movie of the same name, for an Indian version of Hollywood’s Clueless, both inspired by Jane Austen’s Emma.

So, it’s ‘cool’ by mainstream pop-culture standards. I like the original Arabic meaning as well, which is “life”. I also like that it was the name of the Prophet Muhammed’s favourite wife.

Image provided by the author.

But my last name was a little more problematic. While I knew Ayeshas who were Muslim, Christian, Hindu and Sikh, my last name, Aleem, was a dead giveaway. Once someone knew my last name, I could not be seen as anything else other than who I was – a Muslim. With this came all the stereotypes associated with Muslims. Not always, but often enough. And however “woke” someone may have been, it was hard to resist the “Aleem-haleem” jokes.

It didn’t help that my father, whose name this is, didn’t like his own name either. My sister and I remember how he wanted to change his name while we were growing up. When our father didn’t like his name enough to keep it, why did we have to suffer its burden?

All three of us even discussed coming up with a brand new last name that we could share. And then realising that it would mean too much paperwork, and would probably never stick, just daydreamed about what the perfect last name might be. We even debated why we need a last name at all. Couldn’t we just go through life with a first, given name?

But now that I’m older, I know that what I was running from wasn’t my name, specifically. It was my Muslim identity. Attending an all-girls Catholic convent school in India, where I was usually one of maybe three or four Muslim girls, my friends were almost entirely from other faiths. This wasnt deliberate. It just was.

I didn’t wear the burkha or headscarf and neither did any of the women in my immediate family. My father didn’t have a beard. We didn’t eat biryani every day of the week. In other words, although we were a practising Muslim family, I wanted to distance myself from the tired perceptions that plagued the larger community.

That part hasn’t changed, and it doesn’t need to because preconceived notions never did anyone any good. Our world is rich and textured and beautiful because of its varied people who need to be seen for all that they are instead of the lazy ways in which they are widely portrayed. But there’s no need to feel ashamed of my last name either.

When I was younger, I thought this problem of feeling no connection, no love, for your name, was uniquely mine until I heard this speech by an American Muslim student and thought how interesting it was that as an Indian-origin person growing up in India, my desire to “fit in” was as strong as someone at a similar time in their life growing up away from their country of origin, these experiences taking place on opposite sides of the globe.


In the past few years, my relationship with my name has made a complete turn. In fact, I love that it comes from the root word “ilm” in Arabic, which means knowledge because education changed my life. The speech by the American student is from graduation day this year at the university I attended – a life event that had seemed impossible at the time, as recently as a decade ago, because unmarried Muslim girls did not travel overseas to pursue master’s degrees in my social circles.

But, it was precisely in this multicultural and foreign environment of a New England campus that I grew into my own skin, much like the American student, because for the first time, I was introduced to the idea of celebrating individuality instead of trying so hard to “fit in.” This helped me see the transformative power of education, which continues to influence my choices and decisions.

As a Muslim woman today, I understand the value of context with greater clarity. My struggle at making peace with my last name came partly from a lack of context to engage with my identity, from viewing it through a narrow prism based on the trending narrative, which included painting the picture that all Muslims are conservative, rigid in their beliefs and unwilling to integrate with mainstream society – which could not be further from the truth.

Many young Muslims have trouble navigating a non-Islamic society because everything outside of religion is peddled as so evil and sinful. This is such a disservice because it is from an interaction with a world outside of Islam that informs a better understanding of the faith.

Nothing can be studied, much less understood, in isolation. Bacteria hindered from multiplying will die, plants and animals are observed in their natural habitats, it’s difficult to grasp current affairs without looking at history. Similarly, closeting ourselves as Muslims from the rest of the world that doesn’t think and live like us takes us further from the life that we want to get closer to.

Unity in diversity
Image credit: Nessie Gunardi on pinterest.com

Parts of the world are still resisting diversity, denying plurality, insistent on creating a suitable brand of homogeneity. But people are not homogenous. Our lives are not the same. No one is meant to live only with their kind.

The beauty of humans is in their differences. It’s easy to practice whatever kind of “-ness” you choose to – vegan-ness, Muslim-ness, American-ness – when everyone around you is exactly like you. But practising what’s important to you while participating in a context that’s not entirely like yours: that’s what determines identity.

So after years of trying to wish away my last name, I’m finally embracing it fully because I’m finally comfortable with who I am. I’m still Ayesha Aleem. And I still love my first name because it’s “cool”. But I love my last name too – because it stands for ideals I believe in with all my heart, because it’s my identity, because it’s “cool” too.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

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MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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