This is an interview of Aminah Rahman conducted by the leaders of South Asian Alliance (Avi Bhandari, Sawan Garde, Riya Kumar, and Nalini Salveker).
Riya: First of all, can you give a quick introduction of yourself and how you identify within the AAPI community?
Aminah: Sure! I am Aminah Rahman, my pronouns are they/she, and I am a child of immigrants. My parents were born and raised in India. My mom is from Uttar Pradesh, the northern part of India, in a little city called Allahabad, [a] very sweet, small space that [consists mostly] of Muslims, which my family is. My dad is from a little more well-known space, Hyderabad, and, yeah, they found their way over here nearly 40 years ago.
Riya: Were you born in the US?
Aminah: I was born in Southern California. I was raised in Irvine, particularly, and have kind of traveled up north as soon as I was able to.
Riya: What do you think about the difference between SoCal and Northern California in terms of the South Asian community? Right, there are a lot more South Asians here in the Bay Area. What was your experience like growing up? Did you have a lot of South Asian influences around you?
Aminah: Yeah, the only South Asian influence I had were my brothers [and] we overlapped in some school spaces, particularly high school. But up until high school, really, I can’t recall having another Desi friend, another person who was Indian in any of my classes, so I stuck out pretty well. And you know I’ve had its drawbacks and painful moments, particularly through elementary school. Just being a visually brown person wasn’t the easiest thing to do.
Generally speaking, because my family is Muslim, we’re very well-connected in some ways to other Desi Muslims specifically, but a lot of folks I would come across were Pakistani, or they were from Bangladesh [so] whenever we came across someone who was Indian and Muslim it was like a long lost family member. But up here, it’s definitely different, I guess you could say, in terms of seeing other folks who are South Asian around. My parents, if they had started here, in the Bay Area, I feel like their experience also would have been really different, and I think that my childhood, my adolescence would have been really different. And I think that in that way, I would have been a little more connected to my roots if that makes sense.
Riya: You’ve mentioned this sort of differentiator of Indian Muslims. Do you feel a particular draw to other Muslim Indians or do you feel that same sort of connection with like Hindu and Sikh Indians—because, you know, in the South Asian world, religion seems to be a huge divider. How was that portrayed to you growing up and has that affected your internal thoughts about other people in the South Asian diaspora?
Aminah: Yeah, it’s kind of, it’s hard to give a definitive answer about that. You know we had this neighbor who lived up the street that had two kids who were the same ages as my two eldest brothers, and they’re Indian and Hindu, and it was like that was my literal aunt and their two sons — we’re actually like sister and brother. But my parents didn’t really, I don’t feel I received messages that we shouldn’t interact with, we shouldn’t hang out with folks who were Hindu, or who were Sikh, or Christian.
I didn’t have exposure to other people my age that were South Asian, so even having interactions that my parents could say no or could say yes wasn’t even something they had to deal with, so it was difficult for me. And then as I grew, my parents, of course, instilled the importance of religion, and I at all points felt resistance to it in my own self. I was a very rebellious child, [and] if you know anything about South Asians, it’s that you can’t have a rebellious child. That is not a good look for anyone, but especially me, as somebody who… is typed as a female, and that expectation is like being the dutiful daughter. That was something that I always found a way to reject and challenge.
Riya: Definitely, but I just wanted to ask, out of curiosity, what do you call your parents?
Aminah: Okay, so this is going to get me a lot of haters, because I actually call my parents “Mom” and “Dad,” which I know is unheard of, shock, gasp, faint. My parents, as I mentioned, immigrated here, and my dad had actually immigrated when he was 30, and he immediately enrolled in Cal State Fullerton… so that he could get his degree and get settled here. He enrolled and then got married to my mom back in India and brought her back here. My dad always wanted us to, as his children, not have to struggle through finding a sense of place here, and so… he made a particular effort to establish that. For us, it was necessary that we… assimilate. And so a major thing was he explicitly had told us “I’m not going to talk to you in Urdu, I’m not going to talk to you in Hindi, I’m going to talk to you in English, I want you to talk to me in English.”
But for my mom, it wasn’t so easy. English was very much her second language, and she is still very much learning the language. And so for her, it was very interesting, because with our dad we would talk to him in English, he would talk to us in English… [but] with our mom we would talk in Urdu, she would talk to us in Urdu. Over time I feel just so saddened by the fact that I feel like I have lost my language, and I really struggle to connect with my elders now, which has kind of created more of that division I feel between homeland and home. And that’s been really rough, and I hate to see kind of that place hood feel like it’s fading from my, not from my heart necessarily because I don’t think that I could ever remove my Indianess from who I am, nor do I want to, but I feel like that sense of connection fading. And I see it, kind of, as a troubling thing for my mom especially, since that’s such a space of anchoring for her and so I understand all of it, I understand Urdu, you can talk to me in Hindi, I will get what you’re saying, but for the life of me, I cannot respond without embarrassing everyone in the situation.
Riya: Yeah, that’s why I can speak Hindi and Urdu, I understand them very well. I refuse to speak it in front of my family. I will speak it in front of everyone but my family, because I do have a bit of an American accent, or even if I have a more Indian sounding accent, I have bad grammar, and things like that, it gets messed up you know, so I totally understand that feeling of connection.
Aminah: Yeah, it’s like diasporic blues, like I don’t feel like I fit. When I go visit India, obviously I stick out like a sore thumb, and then obviously here, I’m like where does my Indianess place in my surroundings and how can I honor that for myself, and especially how can I model that honoring for other people I’ve struggled so hard with it and I’m not going to lie, there was a major phase in my life where I felt embarrassed to be Indian, and I would hide it away and I would find ways to distance myself from it I know that it was because of how much folks made fun of me throughout my life for being Indian and you know I could not bring a home lunch to school, because I would feel incredibly self-conscious.
At first, I didn’t, [but] you know, in those spaces is obviously where that shame grew, because people were like “Oh my god, what is that?” and “Oh my god, that smells so bad!” It became a big cloud in my life, where I was like “Oh my gosh, people are going to judge me, they’re going to make fun of me, I don’t even know how to defend this.” And so as I grew, it kind of became like this thing I would tuck away and keep secret, and there was a phase in my life where I felt kind of excited when people couldn’t necessarily name that I was Indian and they would try to figure out, you know, where I originated from.
And I kind of bought into it: I was like “It is kind of a fun game, yeah where am I from?” And they would be like “Are you Egyptian, are you Palestinian, are you Lebanese?” and I would actually say “Thank you, but no!” you know, as if it was a compliment that they were paying me, like the further I am from being Indian that that was something I should be proud of. So, it’s taken a while and I’m still on the pathway of letting go of that shaming and letting go of that aspect of embarrassment that I inherited from my experiences.
Riya: How has religion, specifically Islam, affected your life? Particularly, I’m curious, you’re the sex-ed teacher here at CPS, you’re all about embracing your sexuality, getting comfortable with it, removing stigma, so being Muslim and being South Asian are kind of deadly combos. So, how have you managed to grapple with that?
Aminah: Yeah, in some ways, those things for a large part of my life, existed in opposition to each other. I couldn’t be Muslim [or] South Asian, and believe that I had the right to express myself sexually, that I had the ability to, or that I should understand myself and my body in more personal, intimate ways. And that process has been just very similar to like identity in general, has been a long process of unlearning, and I think I came to a head about 15 years ago, in which I was like I don’t want to carry this anymore, it feels unfair to me that I carry these feelings of shame and self-loathing for things that just feel so, and I do really hate using this word, but so natural in some ways. Like, I have this body, for me in my body, I have the capacity to feel pleasure, and that is something that I if I’m wanting to, should have access to, should be able to listen to further, should be able to explore, and a lot of the ways my family specifically taught me Islam was very limiting.
And I make that differentiation purposefully because I think that through time and through perspective, I’ve had the ability to kind of step back and see that Islam as a religion is something that does encourage that space, like pleasure, it does encourage knowing yourself. Of course, the parameters are still a little bit limiting and you know I don’t I am a little bit shy to broach the topic, because, full disclosure, I don’t fully describe myself as a Muslim, but Islam is such an important part of who I am because it has taught me so many things, both good and bad, both things that I like and want to include in my life and things that I want to distance myself from.
And in the communities that I’ve been a part of, sexuality has been very one-note, it’s been existing as very binary. And sexuality [has been] very heterosexual and expression of sexuality [has been] something that must occur within the confines of marriage, and even with that marriage there are expectations or guidelines, there are rules. And as I told you before, I was a very rebellious person and rules never really sat well with me, and so that was one of the ways that I kind of insisted on my individuality is saying, “No that doesn’t suit me, not this doesn’t feel right. And what else is there? And what else can I know about myself? And how else can I feel closer to understanding who I am as I grow.” And even now at my age, I still have a lot more to do.