My name is Mayesha. I am 22 years old and I'm a senior at Purdue studying human relations and management. I'm from Gurnee, Illinois, which is a northern suburb of Chicago about ten minutes away from the border of Wisconsin. I'm the first in my family to go to Purdue and the first in basically all of my family to go to a large American university/institution. My parents are from Bangladesh and they were born and raised there. My dad came here in the '70s. My mom came here in the '90s, and then my brother and I were born. I have an older brother, should mention that too. That is who I am.
I grew up in a pretty religious household. It was interesting because there were a lot of religious and cultural constraints. I hate using the word constraints, but there were a lot of barriers that were permeable, but it was definitely difficult to navigate through those while balancing a more westernized American culture by going to public school here and making friends who weren't Muslim or had the same skin color as me. I'm not going to lie, it was kind of difficult growing up and understanding who I had to be with my family, and then outside of my household as well.
From a very young age my parents taught me how to pray our five prayers per day. I learned how to read arabic and the Quran starting when I was five years old. That just stuck with me throughout my life so I do believe that I am fairly religious while I also know how to navigate and be a part of westernized society.
I will say that growing up my parents were a little bit stricter and had higher expectations for my brother and I, but once they got used to westernized/American culture they understood that there came a point where they couldn't constrain us anymore otherwise we wouldn't know how to function within society, so they started to let us navigate our lives on our own. Now I do live a very balanced life, but it was difficult to reach that point, but I wouldn't have changed the way I was raised. It taught me a lot of discipline. It taught me a lot of appreciativeness and love for my family, my religion, where I'm from and where I'm living right now. It made me who I am today, which I'm very proud of.
Learning what it means to be a Muslim-American Woman
I think I'm a huge believer in the fact that you are a result of your environment. Growing up, my mom essentially is, my mom is honestly one of the most bad-ass people I know. She came to the U.S. with very broken English. She got a degree over in Bangladesh. She couldn't really use it here because the education systems are so different. She came here and she was so lost, she had no idea what to do. My mom wasn't the type to just sit on her butt and not do anything about it. She worked at Walgreens while my dad was at work, and then saved money and went to school and got a master's degree and then ended up getting another master's. Now she teaches early childhood, special education. She works so hard to serve others and serving herself that it showed me that - I mean in her faith and being a Muslim really, really shapes her life as well. It's something that she is so close to that that's what shapes her personal life and her work life as well.
That's definitely showed me that being a Muslim woman does not mean that you just cover yourself up and go about your day and what-not. It means that you show others that you have strength, you have resilience and that you can do anything if you put your mind to it. There's literally nothing's stopping you but you. My parents have always taught me if you work hard you can absolutely attain anything that you want, and my mom is definitely someone who has taught me that, that if you don't work hard, if you don't have high expectations for yourself you will not reach your maximum potential. Everybody respects her, everybody loves her and I'm very, very proud to be her daughter.
A Call to Action
I think our time is now. There has been so much happening for the past 15 years definitely and definitely beyond that as well. It just seems like every other day there's something going on that revolves around Muslims, even just like the terrorist attacks yesterday in London and what-not. I think that in a way it has helped me feel more in tune with my community because we've been able to get together and talk about our struggles, talk about our differences and talk about how we're feeling together, while also the recent political landscape. Yeah, it's horrible and we hate it, but in a way it's helped other people in different communities speak up and say, "You know what? We don't agree with this either and we are going to help you and we will be there with you."
That's why I'm sitting here doing this interview. I mean that's the thing, it's just I'm very, very lucky to say that I have not felt like I don't belong anywhere, even in a 70% red state. I know that I have a community here that I am with and I'm here and I'm the only Muslim in one of my friend groups here at Purdue and they've never looked at me differently because of that.
I think there's a difference between feeling like you're alienated versus actually being alienated. If you don't feel like you belong then you're not in the right place because there are people who are out there willing to open their arms to you, especially nowadays everyone is willing to open themselves up to you so it's been really nice.
I think that ... How am I trying to put this into words? To my fellow Muslims, I do think that there is a lot of messaging out there telling others who aren't Muslim we're human too and you should respect Muslims and we're all the same, we're all in this together and everything. Going back to my last point, I do want to tell my fellow Muslims to give the world a better chance just because a lot of bad stuff gets covered on the media and not enough good stuff. There is a lot of good stuff happening, it's just not a lot of what we're seeing.
Definitely be open, be flexible, and know that not everybody practices the same way as you, and not everybody is coming from the same path of life as you. Be open, be resilient and understand that at the end of the day it is not your life and it is that person's. While it is our duty as Muslims to spread Islam and to spread peace and awareness, it is not our responsibility to change people. There is a difference between spreading awareness and changing, so I would want my fellow Muslims to know that. I think for my brothers and sisters who are not Muslim give us a chance too, I guess. I think there's so much messaging that goes out there that says the same exact thing, but this is coming from someone who English was my first language and telling ... I've been very, very, very fortunate and very lucky to never have experienced prejudice, but I have a lot of friends who have.
I have a lot of friends in Chicago who can't ride the metro with their hijabs on without getting stares. I do have friends who have been told, "Take that off or go home to where you're from." It's like, "I was born here and sorry." That really sucks. Think about how it's just all about empathy. It's all about compassion. Don't do that. It's not cool, it's not ... There's no basis on it and basis behind it and always, always remember that we are all different, we are coming from different backgrounds and ideologies, but at the end of the day we're all the same. We need to live together in order to make the world a better place.
A Day in the Life
My typical day is basically like every other student.
I wake up a little bit earlier so I can pray the first prayer,
which is called fajr.
The rest of my day is normal--
wake up and go to class.
Since we do have our five prayers throughout the day
I do have to structure my day around those prayers
and find time to take five or ten minutes out and pray,
whether that means going to our mosque on campus,
which is so convenient.
I can run there in between classes or
find an empty study room and do that as well.
Sometimes it's hard to pray them on time,
especially with class or meetings and stuff.
It's not a matter of having the time,
it's a matter of making time and putting in that effort.
Again, it's taught me a lot of discipline.
It's taught me how to ground myself and take some time out.
I end my day like any other student would,
meetings and homework
and then praying my nighttime prayer
and going to bed.
It's basically the same thing at home as well,
but at home a lot of times we will go to mosque together
as a family
or pray together and practice
our own religion and culture
within the family.
In public school it was just hard to explain my religion without feeling alienated or ostracized just because even though I went to a pretty diverse elementary, middle school, and high school, because I am from a very diverse suburb of Chicago I was still a minority when it came to my skin color and my religion. There weren't that many Muslims and there weren't that many practicing Muslims because something that I realized about going to public school is that a lot of Muslim-Americans feel ashamed of their religion and tend to back out of it and not really practice it anymore because they don't want to be made fun of. They don't want to be teased. They don't want to have to go through the trouble of explaining it.
I just remember it was a lot of sticking to my guns and understanding that I didn't have to defend anything that I believed in. While it was difficult to explain why during Ramadan I wasn't in the cafeteria. I was doing homework in the library during my lunch period, or why I couldn't go to school dances and stuff like that. It was difficult to explain without feeling different but embracing those differences really helped me embrace my own differences in college.
It wasn't easy. It definitely wasn't at all. I think I'll go back to saying that it really did teach me that discipline and make me who I am today. I'm very proud of my religion as well. It was definitely difficult too when you just see everything on the news. I figured out who the, I don't like saying this, but the intelligent/resourceful people in school were because they were curious to learn more about Islam and they didn't exactly point fingers at me and say, "Your religion is dumb," or, "It's not good." They wanted to know more and know what my input was. It was pretty awesome to be able to explain it.
I wouldn't say necessarily it (Purdue) gets a bad rap, but at the same time I think Purdue deserves a little bit more credit just because there are people here who agree with Muslims and agree with Islam and everything. There are more people here than you think who are behind us and who back us and who want us to be here. It's just a matter of finding them.
Finding a Muslim Community at Purdue
I think coming to Lafayette really ... To be quite honest I didn't find too many differences between Lafayette and from where I'm from, except for the fact that the Chicago area is a little bit more accepting of Muslims, and Indiana as a whole, it's not just Lafayette, is not as accepting. I think my caveat to that is just that they don't know the answers. They're not educated. A lot of people make the assumptions, they just don't know.
What I've noticed in Lafayette is that the Muslim community is very tight knit, and especially because most of us are students, and if not, we have some tie to Purdue, which kind of gives us that common ground. I have a really great Muslim community back at home who they're like my sisters. It's just a big group of us girls who are Bengali. Our parents were born and brought up in Bangladesh but we were born and brought up here so we've kind of navigated our difficulties together. I found that same community here in Lafayette, or at Purdue, which has been awesome because I've been able to learn and grow with them as well.
I've been very lucky to have Muslim roommates since my sophomore year. My freshman roommate, she wasn't but she was still great. She was very accepting of me praying in my room, in our room and doing whatever I had to do. She asked me questions and everything. Sophomore year on I lived with a Muslim roommate. This year I have two Muslim roommates and they're a couple of my biggest support systems. I don't know how I would've kept up with my religion if I didn't have that community and that sense of they're always encouraging me to think beyond just praying five times a day and reading some Quran every day. There's more to Islam than doing that so we've always been able to build each other up and challenge each other and whatnot.
Being here has definitely showed me and it helped me appreciate how much I do care about my religion and how much it has shaped me and affected me, especially because there are so many differences between Islam and different religions, even things like partying and drinking, very frowned upon. I've learned how to be very resistant and saying no to all of that stuff, to resist temptation and to build myself up as well. I've been exposed to a lot of new ideas and ideologies here that I probably wouldn't be able to be exposed to anywhere else. It's definitely made me a lot stronger for sure.
Opportunities and Challenges
Opportunities, I've been able to talk more about this- right here. I've been able to spread my message, spread my two cents, especially because I think that I have a very different take on being a Muslim-American woman because I don't wear a hijab and because I am involved in a lot of student organizations on campus that a lot of Muslims don't feel gravitated towards. I hang out with my friends who are of the opposite gender. There are a lot of ... With the opportunity sense- I've been able to show that Muslims do not just sit in a room and pray all the time and do whatever. We're a very open bunch. We love talking. We love getting to know people. We're all about community and everything like that. I've been able to show that I am not a stereotypical Muslim-American woman. I think it's unfortunate that a lot of people can meet me and say, "I didn't even know you were Muslim." What am I supposed to say? “I didn't know you were Christian.” It really doesn't matter. I don't have a badge saying “I'm Muslim.” You know what I mean?
It's been really, really cool to show that we are just like you and we are human, and just because I'm a woman does not mean that I'm oppressed and I don't have the opportunities that Muslim men have. That's been really cool opportunity-wise.
Challenge-wise is just being flexible with others because as Muslims we stress patience, we stress openness, and we stress creating peace with one another. It's been difficult to be friends with people or know people who don't believe in the same ideologies as you, who identify with politicians that you don't identify with, and biting your tongue and saying, "That is not true and what they're saying isn't horrible and you should not be doing this." Because we stress in Islam community it's fine, embrace differences and whatnot. I have to keep reminding myself to not be hypocritical and to accept others for what they believe in and everything because it's not on me to change what you believe in, but it is on me to help you understand that there are certain ideologies that might be better for you to take a look at. If that's not your cup of tea I'm not the person to tell you to think otherwise.
I do think that another challenge too is that there are a lot of Muslims who do do that, and showing them and stressing ... I mean, yeah, I'm not going to lie, in Lafayette and beyond, and definitely not just Purdue, I've met a lot of Muslims who are very, very intolerant towards other ideologies and other religions and other lifestyles. Our whole point of being a Muslim and being a Muslim in America is bridging those divides and bringing communities together. If you can't accept that you are not doing that yourself how are you being a practicing and fulfilling and wholesome Muslim?
There is a lot of hypocrisy that comes into play. It's something that every individual has to take a look at. It can be very, very frustrating, but accepting it and understanding that this is something that you need to be wary of is very, very important.