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.
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 wasn’t 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.
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.