Speech by Qaisra Shahraz

as a part of The Identity Project at the Linden Museum in Stuttgart on the 27th July 2006

Today is especially a highlight for me as I am delighted to be attending this marvellous event. A year ago I was approached by Ingrid Stritzelberger to become involved with the launch of this wonderful project. For a week I will be visiting schools and a teacher training college, working with students and teachers. I am especially looking forward to working with Ingrid’s [Strizelberg’s] pupils.

I wish to congratulate the entire team, teachers and students, who have worked so hard – what an achievement! I also would like to say how similarly impressed I was with the previous projects done by the same team, in particular the one on William Shakespeare. What a wonderful resource! My own students in Manchester have all enjoyed using it. I am sure that this new project will be so welcomed and valued by all users.

I was asked to speak on the topic of identity and I am delighted to do so; as it strikes a strong chord in me on a personal level. As a Muslim woman, of Pakistani origin, I am forever contemplating about my own multiple identities.

So what is identity? What do we mean by it?

I believe identity is a package that makes every one of us be a unique human being. Often it comes as a package of multiple identities, as in my case or in the case of most migrants, where we weave in and out of these multiple identities and with such ease without even giving it a thought it on a daily basis.

At the heart of it all, I think, is the concept of diversity. We are all different—and differences need to be celebrated and valued, not denigrated or seen as a problem. We are all different in some way or other—even identical twins! It might be the colour of the eyes, our habits, our beliefs, our skin colour, our height, the language we speak, the way we dress, the food that we like, the music we love or hate, the accent of our speech—and so on.

Stereotypes arise when we try to pigeonhole people into narrow slots of human behaviour based on our people’s perception. We should view them through the prism of our own world. One’s own identity or background shouldn’t be seen to be in a superior position to the others.

Young minds, young children in particular find it a challenge trying to accommodate the varied packages of these multiple identities; in particular the world of home and that of the outside. They often struggle and with the conflicts they find themselves in as well as the outcome.

My short story: A Pair of Jeans, focuses on this conflict of multiple identities. My heroine Miriam is totally at home in both her worlds and her two identities; she manages to switch in and out of them very easily. Yet on one day her clothing, and the manner in which it is worn has her two identities clashing head on; this leads to both confusion in herself and to those around her—or as is often termed, to a cultural clash.

I will now read a short extract from my story. [Author reads extract.]

Respect for others identities or backgrounds is so crucial, especially at this moment in time. There is a lot of conflict around us and a lot has been made to stir up trouble intentionally by focusing on our differences. It is wrong and highly mischievous to do that.
At this moment in time the need to build bridges and to tackle negativity is crucial.
Often this negativity arises out of pure ignorance, lack of awareness and racism. A better understanding of other people’s faiths, customs, cultures, and appreciation of their different backgrounds is so important. By doing this we are in a better position to view others with equality, respect and human dignity.

As teachers, myself included, it is so important to learn about the pupils who we teach, and their background. If you ignore the identity package they bring with them, you risk devaluing that child, its human dignity and self respect. This leads to misery, clash of cultures and an identity crisis – the child is literally lost between their two worlds.

Similarly, the migrant, whether a child or an adult, has to learn and appreciate the identity package of the host community, and to adjust accordingly. They should integrate as far as possible without compromising their beliefs, faith and customs. If one believes that they should cover one’s head with a scarf, they should not be forced to go bareheaded, because the host community wishes it. If eating pork is against one’s religion, they should not be forced to eat it? These are just two examples. One has to be sensitive and respect these differences than demand that they become exactly like us. No human being can become a clone of another. In any event is it not human arrogance for anyone to expect that to happen.

I have lived for a long time in Britain, practically all of my life, since I was eight — years old. Yet I have successfully managed to keep all of my three identities in tact and fluid; and regard them and had them regarded by others of equal importance throughout my life. The end result, a wonderful feeling and well adjusted human being who is truly at home in all contexts of my three identities.

So who am I? How do I describe myself? I introduce myself as a British Muslim woman of Pakistani origin. Hence I have multiple identities. For me all three identities are of equal importance – all worthy of celebration and all enriching my life.
Let me unpack these three identities of mine. What is it like to be British Muslim woman who still has strong connections with another country?

First and foremost I regard myself as British, as I have lived all my life in Britain and it is where my heart and home is – there is no question of loyalty. English is and has become my first language. It is the language I use in everyday context at home, especially with my children and in the world outside. I not only think in English but have begun to see things like many other British people. The British values to some extent have become mine, in particular to do with fairness, equality, and treating
others with respect and humanity. I eat British food: fish and chips although so unhealthy, still remain a treat for my children especially with mushy peas. Like any other British person I am gasping for good old English tea no matter where I am. I like and wear western clothes though the fashion these days makes it more difficult for me as a Muslim woman to choose, because most are designed to show so much of the flesh. I have friends all over the UK, as well as good friends with whom I share my thoughts. I watch and enjoy on a weekly basis some of our wonderful soaps (daily family dramas), like Coronation Street based in Manchester and East Enders based in London for example. I am hooked, like most people, on these soaps. The Big Brother shows however have no appeal for me. At times I find them revolting, but they are very popular with the young people. I have been well fed and grown up on English literature, studied it to a masters degree level, learnt a lot of British history, fascinated by Henry the Eighth and his six wives. The music of the Bee Gees and the Carpenters still bring a smile to my face.

Manchester is a great city and I love it. It has everything going for it. I have spent almost my entire life there, attended the primary school to university. My extended family which includes my parents, my siblings, their in-laws, all live in the greater Manchester region. Above all, Manchester is where my home and heart is and although I hate its rain, I love the cool summer of Britain.

Now my Muslim identity: I am a practicing Muslim, by birth and by choice, not a fanatic as some. My name identifies me as a Muslim – it’s an Iranian name with its roots is Latin from ‘Caesar’, so I have been told. My name Shiraz is from a city in Iran. I am not given to the belief of suicide bombings and jihad etc. My lifestyle, moral and social behaviour, thought processes, and conduct in life, are dictated by my faith. For I avoid having to touch men. I address Muslim men as ‘brothers’ and women as ‘sisters’. Out of my mouth these phrases are always uttered, inshallah, meaning ‘God willing’. I greet other Muslims with ‘Asalama Alaikum’, peace be with you. I do not eat forbidden food i.e. haram food, pork for instance, and only eat halaal food. I don’t drink alcohol. I pray, although not as regularly as I should. Often because I am lazy but during Ramadan the holy month of fasting. I try to make up it up and go to visit the local mosque. There with a group of other women perform a special prayers called: tharavee. It is a fantastic experience, ask some of your Muslim students, neighbours or friends and they will enthusiastically tell you about it. Praying with a group of Spanish Muslims in the Granada mosque was an exceptional experience.

I have done hajj, the pilgrimage, a wonderful annual journey with its set of rituals in Mecca and Medina that all Muslims should perform once in a lifetime. What a fantastic experience it was. I have written about it in British newspapers including for The Times, and in my novel The Holy Woman.

I did an Islamic studies course at university and leamt about the famous Ottoman Empire, of what is now Turkey, the great Mughal empire of India, the Moors rule in Spain. I studied the literature especially the wonderful poetry of Rumi, Sadi and Ghalib etc, all these are great men who enriched world literature etc. Islam and Muslim people have contributed a lot to the world’s civilization. I specialised in art completing a dissertation on miniature paintings which I love.

I follow rituals like eating with my right hand, relating to washing and personal hygiene. My house has a prayer mat in every room.

My other identity package relates to my Pakistani roots. I was born in Pakistan and have childhood memories of Lahore the old Indian capital city with many gates dating back five centuries in India. These memories have enriched me and I savour them. They helped in writing my two novels: The Holy Woman and Typhoon, which are both set primarily in Pakistan. Pakistan is my second home, the family house from my father’s side is still there and we go there to stay. I have good links throughout Pakistan forming friends there just as I am now doing here in Germany. I have done similar literary tours in Pakistan. Visiting colleges, universities, offering lectures in teaching training or on literature or launching my books. I have had a drama set and produced in Pakistan. The issues I feel strongly about have a lot to do with the society of Pakistan. I speak the two main languages, Urdu and Punjabi, the language of the Punjab.

I love the Pakistani food, my husband and I relish cooking it. My palate misses the spicy taste when I am on holiday. I make fresh chapattis for my family everyday. I wear Pakistani clothes, shalwaar kameez for everyday wear, especially in the summer and at home. At parties, like on this occasion. I have a whole set of glamorous outfits including lenghas as the one I am wearing today and saris. I have a rich wardrobe of different styles of clothes, colours, textures, silks, chiffons, and satins I love wearing them at wedding parties. This outfit I am wearing today was designed by myself for my sister’s wedding and was made in a famous bazaar in Lahore.

In Manchester there is a sizeable Pakistani community and I am an active member of it, attending all functions, meeting and befriending members of the Pakistani community both locally and nationally.

Like any other migrants weaving in and out of two worlds and cultures there are those moments of displacements. Where the three identities do occasionally clash, where sometimes you feel you are an alien both in Britain and in Pakistan, belonging to neither. For instance when I go on holiday to south of England, the manner in which some people stare at you because of your colour it sadly brings it home to you that despite having lived all your life in Britain, you are still at times regarded as being different, and made to feel alienated. The same thing happens when I visit Pakistan, There too I don’t truly belong, and holidaying is one thing settling in is another matter. Different mind set and values, behaviour, etc. It is then it strikes me that generally I am more British than Pakistani. I guess you become a product of society that raises you. When people talk about integration I smile wryly—if my example is not of integration then what is! My British mentality tends to dominate on the whole.

In Britain I wish there was more awareness that colleagues would remember to send me an Eid card, not always a Christmas card. I wish they were more sensitive and remember that I am fasting etc. These are moments where you become lost in the world of being a minority. You almost become invisible. I realise that part of the problem is sheer ignorance and lack of knowledge. Of people not knowing, if you don’t know you can’t appreciate. I offer cultural awareness training to my institution
and other places, so that people can gain a better understanding of each other’s personal world and above all to learn to respect and understand each other better.

There have been many moments of compromises in my life and I can share some of those moments which made me feely uneasy. In France at a scriptwriter conference in Aix en Provence, I had to place my hand over a glass to stop people trying to put wine in it, even after I told them I did not drink In Slovenia on a recent teacher training course we as group of foreign participants were asked to get to know each other better in the very first hour and with one activity ended up having to sit in each other’s laps. I remained perched on the end of the seat, for I could not sit on the lap of a Czech man. Politeness had to be put aside as I had to tell the trainer that I could not do that. In any event it was an inappropriate activity for any group of people to do. It is an invasion of one’s physical space.

In Greece a long time ago when staying with a Greek family. Wonderful people almost like family; we went swimming in the open sea. The other women wore the bikinis; I was cajoled into wearing a tee shirt. When I left the water, of course the tee shirt was plastered to my body, leading to personal embarrassment. I have never repeated that action since.

Many a time I have had to endure kisses being planted on my face by male colleagues as a social gesture. It happens so quickly that you can’t even duck away nor can you explain to them there why it was wrong – you just hope that they knew. Three years ago a colleague, an inspector friend attended my book launch party and did two things that you must not do to a Muslim woman. He handed me a bottle of wine as a present and then went on to plant a kiss on my cheek—touching a Muslim woman including shaking other hand is to be avoided. Many a time I have had to explain to colleagues not offer their hand to Muslim women unless like the Somali women they offer it as it is a custom in their community, but they cover their hands with a cloth so that no physical contact as such takes place. When I have Muslim students in my class I am very sensitive to the seating and physical space arrangements and try to pick up from their body language how they feel about it. There are many other instances.

I think I have shared enough about my personal world. I hope it has given you an insight into what it is like to have multiple identities. Thank you so much for your time and for being such a great audience and for joining us here.

I will now let Ingrid introduce a very special lady and a very dear friend of mine, Professor Liesel Hermes who has travelled down from Karlsruhe this afternoon to join us here.

If anybody wants a copy of this paper they can get in touch with me via my email: [email protected]. If you want to get in touch to either ask any questions personally or to invite me to visit your school or relating to this paper do feel free

Enjoy the rest of your evening.

Qaisra Shahraz 2006

This text is for non-commercial educational use only. All other use is by permission of the author only.

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