The Black Muslim Girl’s Survival Guide to University
(‘cuz she be making me question my whole existence)
University. We’ve been waiting for this one. It is said to be a great time in our lives as we are on the cusp between adulthood (independence and doing what you want) and teenagehood (not wrinkly and still know the popular slang). I for one, was really excited for this new chapter. Finally, I can micromanage my life the way I want to without the need to worry about the extra responsibilities of being the eldest daughter in a Nigerien-Senegalese immigrant household. I can finally spend time exploring myself and the world around me. Well, at least, that’s how I used to feel.
In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement and the quarantine, I took to reading more books which covered topics of racism in Canada, and one really disintegrated my fantastical dreams of university. Eternity Martis, a Jamaican-Pakistani journalist, wrote a memoir about her experiences as a Black woman on campus during her undergrad. They Said This Would Be Fun forced me to accept a truth I thought I could ignore going into university: my experience will be a whole lot different solely for being a Black, Muslim woman. I saw myself in Martis, from her will to break away from the constraints put in place by her strict, traditional family to the feeling of not knowing what she wants in her life to feeling like she constantly takes up space wherever she goes. That book broke my heart and opened my eyes at the same time. It made me dread university, and, coupled with the anxieties that developed during quarantine, I fell into emotional numbness and an ongoing identity crisis.
I’ve been in university for a month now and while theoretically that isn’t a long time, I feel like I’ve mentally aged 3 years. University really does do that to you. I want to share the things that have been helping me navigate these times. Trust me when I say that these tips work; a struggling girl like me wouldn’t have written this piece otherwise. This guide is to my fellow black Muslim girls out there. To the ones who feel like they have to prove themselves all the time. To the ones who are barely holding on to the Faith. To the ones who are tired of the way black bodies are being treated. To the ones who don’t know what to expect. We’re in the same boat, so let’s sail together.
STEP ONE: Find where the other Black people are at and quickly attach yourself (two meters apart and with a mask of course) (bonus points if they’re Muslim).
Like a flea. Don’t ever lose sight of all the other Black bodies on campus, in res, or wherever. Attach yourself or you will lose yourself, literally and figuratively. Non-black people might be confused by this tip, asking themselves: “Why would you look to only be friends with Black people? Shouldn’t you try to diversify your friend group?”. Yes, you should, but this here is a survival tip that is quite difficult for me to explain, but let me try. My experience as a Black person on campus is one that only other Black people on campus could actually understand. By finding other Black people on campus to rejoice with, it confirms to me that I am not crazy to think that certain incidents happened to me solely because of my skin colour. I am also reassured that because I am not the only person having to deal with these particular issues, I can survive being a Black person on campus. I will have a network of people available to console and support me along the way. As humans, we gravitate towards people to whom we can relate. This is especially true for visible minorities on campus. Ultimately, everyone in university is just trying to survive and survival means relying on people who have similar experiences to you for mental support. So please, find Black people around you and support each other through what is going to be some trying times.
STEP TWO: Prepare a sweet and straight-to-the-point response for when folks look at you with surprise (and lowkey disbelief) when you say you’re Muslim.
Long story short, I used to wear the hijab from the ages of 7 to 16. I started because of my mommy and took it off because I felt like a phony. It was my identifier. It was what told people that I am a Muslim. It told people, without me even needing to open my mouth, that no, I wasn’t a convert (actually I did have to clarify that), and yes, I know how to pray. The hijab became less of something that I wore for Allah (Arabic for God), and more something I wore to prove my faith to people and, to a certain extent, myself. So, I made the tough decision to take it off. Now I walk down the streets, and unless I mention it, no one would really know this very important aspect of mine. And I imagine some of you aren’t wearing hijabs either. So, what do we not visibly Muslims do? Lead a prayer in a park? Scream Bismillah before we eat in a restaurant? Ask if we could have a halal version of anything and everything? Nah. Just come up with a single line that you can use to erase the faces of shocked people when you casually mention that you are Muslim. Maybe something aggressive like: “Do I not look Muslim enough to you?”. Or maybe something self-deprecating like: “I know, I don’t look like it at all right?”. Or maybe something subtle like: “Man, it’s almost Maghrib, time to head home.” Or even better, something desperate like: “I wore the hijab for 8 years!”. Or just don’t say anything. Recognize that your relationship with Allah is between you and Him, and you don’t need to prove yourself to anyone (more of that in step 4). Actually, you could smile and say: “Yes, this is real, this is me. I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be now”. Bust out a dance for some extra flavour.
STEP THREE: Find your halal equivalent of alcohol.
Only Allah knows that this world is crazy, so it only makes sense that we need ways to loosen up and escape. But obviously, alcohol isn’t the way we can do it. Luckily, there are plenty of ways that you can kick back, relax, and transport yourself to anywhere that isn’t this current reality. You could start binging K-dramas, you could start playing squash, you could do Zumba, you could pretend you’re putting on a concert in your bathtub, you can learn how to bake brownies, you could make a pointage painting of your mom. Heck, you could just sit down, stare at your blank wall, and just daydream. These are all-halal ways to wash your problems away. Are these ways more fun than drinking alcohol? Probably not. Are they healthier than alcohol? Yes, in moderation of course (#maladaptivedaydreamertings). The moral is that us Muslims should be able to unwind and escape too because it’s not like life is any easier for us (added points if you’re Black and a woman and disabled and economically disadvantaged. I could go on.) If you want to feel a similar feeling to being drunk, just fall in love. That’s what my drinker friends have told me is the closest way to feel emotionally unstable, drowsy, and out of your mind.
STEP FOUR: It is ok if at times to feel like ‘less-than-an-ideal-Muslim.' However, don’t let anyone tell you this.
Being a Muslim to me is having a personal and intimate relationship between you and Allah. How you define this relationship is up to you. On the day of Qiyamah (Day of Judgement), you and only you will stand in front of Allah to confront the choices and way of life that you chose in duniya (This current life in Arabic). So why let another person evaluate how much of a “good” Muslim you are? They won’t be there to defend you or testify against you. Take control of this beautiful relationship because it will only benefit you in the end. We are created to be imperfect, and will never reach perfection, so all you can do is use the tools and support Allah bestowed upon you to better yourself every day. That is what I believe it means to be a Muslim. A Muslim is not represented by a single person or group of people because if I had had to rely on the Muslim community to represent me, my stories and experiences as a Black Muslim woman would be erased. So, do what you have to, and aim to be better than yesterday’s you.
My final words to my Black Muslim girlies is that you are valid. Your experiences that are a product of your skin, your gender, your sexuality, your ethnic background, your body, your socio-economic class, and your physical and mental ability are all valid. They are all worth sharing and being listened to. Don’t ever try to separate yourself from any of these identities. University is a time of self-discovery, meaning you will be constantly tested on your willingness to accept and love every part of yourself. Trust and understand that process. In the end, you will come out stronger and better than when you first stepped into these uncharted waters. I believe in you.