Illustration by Nisala Saheed

Making A Life in the Shadow of Others

I discovered that my religion was meeting others' expectations. A religion of fear and insecurities led to seeking the accolades of others.

Nov 26, 2016

In a post on Nov. 7 on the NYUAD Forum Facebook page, a student expressed his concern about the religious options that are listed as part of the UAE visa application. The options presented in a screenshot of an email included Catholic and Orthodox for Christians and Sunni or Shia for Muslims, as the email indicated that the student had already selected Christian or Muslim as their religion. For someone who is not affiliated with any of the other options, there was only the option to identify as atheist. The limited options forced people to declare the option closest to their beliefs, thus reflecting what governments seem to expect of individual’s beliefs based on their nationality.
It is not uncommon to be asked to fit into a preordained pattern. Ideologically, I oppose this point of view, and I do so by trying to live my life according to my choices. I was particularly struck by this post as it made me question how many times I did and said what others wanted to hear about me. I have written essays on the topics my professor assigned, rather than those that I was interested in. I let people decide for me. In the search for the approval of others, I became addicted to posing as a good student, a good daughter and a supportive member of the community.
People would urge me to put more effort into my work, which motivated me. Of course these people were right. I was happy with pleasing others. I feigned happiness up to the point where I would not let my parents and my teachers down and I kept my own beliefs and convictions at bay. By denying my beliefs and my impressions, I internalized doubts that made me constantly think that if I sound smart enough, that’s enough. I was wrong, and my life was made up of others’ plans.
Unlike the person who posted, I didn’t question whether my religion fit into the prescribed categories. Instead, I discovered that my religion was meeting others’ expectations. A religion of fear and insecurities led to seeking the accolades of others. Looking into the mirror and asking who I was, I simply felt that I was supposed to be successful by following a prescribed form. I could speak for days about what I wanted to achieve and what my plans were in the long term, but the hardest questions for me were about what I really enjoyed doing. Quite counterintuitively, I was good at achieving things, but I wasn’t good at being myself.
In a world that forcefully tries to make me fit into it, finding my footing seems to be problematic. Undoubtedly, this is one of the conundrums of modern times – our constant fight to be our true selves. But how do we pursue our own values when everybody tells us what to do?
Lately, the most intimate signification of one’s personal beliefs has been taken away by associations with terrorism and hatred. Religion has become a difficult subject to touch on. As expected, the biggest victim is freedom of expression. It would be of no surprise to me if in the future, the U.S. visa will be restricted based on religion. This time it will happen in a prohibitive rather than coercive way, and it may put people’s lives in danger.
In closing, I don’t have a definitive answer to the question on what needs to be done to stay positive, unique and staunch about our principles. I can only guess. Can we lie to save face? Maybe. Can we comply with the situation and give up on our identity? We can, but at the cost of losing faith in ourselves.
Daria Zahaleanu is a staff writer. Email her at feedback@thegazelle.org.
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