"Why are you writing a book about your life? You’re only 24 years old…"
This is probably the most common question posed to me since the release of my memoir, Yassmin’s Story. Frankly, it is not totally unexpected. After all, memoirs are usually written after the fact, with people who are looking back on their lives rather than those only just starting to live it.
My question in return however, is simple.
How many stories by young Muslims have you ever read? Seen? Heard of?
I am usually greeted by an honest but embarrassed silence. Those stories don’t seem to exist in our society and therein lays the gap that Yassmin’s Story hopes to begin to fill.
Sometimes, people have heard stories about or by Muslims, but unfortunately the angle is usually overwhelmingly negative and has some link to terrorism, hijab or crime. I have asked many a group of high school students whether they had ever heard a positive story about Muslims, and I am usually disappointed (but not surprised) at the response. Most people can’t even think of one.
Those stories don’t seem to exist in our society and therein lays the gap that Yassmin’s Story hopes to begin to fill.
So how can we expect to create and sustain a cohesive society when the stories and experiences of so many young people within our community are simply non-existent in our public discourse? News, advertising and similar voices of authority show people a single story about Muslims time and time again. How are we expected to challenge that narrative if we have no voice?
There is truth in the adage that ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’. Like many young girls of colour and faith, I didn’t grow up seeing anyone like me at all in the public space. The people on TV, in advertising and even in books all looked completely different to me, had different family structures and lived completely different lives to the one I was accustomed to. My experience, like the story of so many others who belong to marginalised groups, was rendered invisible. By doing so, an entire generation was silenced and made to feel like they were outsiders in their own home.
But that is not where the story ends. Telling my story at the age of 24 is not something I do lightly, nor is it about regaling the world with a list of ‘lofty achievements’. It is not in fact, really about me at all. It is about the experience of growing up migrant and Muslim in a world post 9/11, and the fact that I went from being a brown girl who wore funny clothes to the ‘face of all that was evil’ almost overnight. It is about trying to make sense of two different cultures, different expectations, different ideologies – embracing the identity of the third culture kid. It’s about trying to make a difference as a teenager, figuring out how to use my voice and then finding a place to use it. It is about the fact that all the strong (hijabi) women around me are the very same women our society often likes to think are oppressed, but I couldn’t imagine anything further from the truth. If you get to know one, you’ll know what I mean!
Yassmin’s Story is simply a snapshot in time. It is an opportunity to share what life has been like up until this point, but it is a book of arrival, not of departure.
My hope is that by sharing my experiences, I can encourage others to do the same. Difference is rendered irrelevant through true human connection, and inshallah by humanising a foreign experience, we can take steps in the right direction.
Yassmin’s Story by Yassmin Abdel-Magied ($34.99) is available now from booksellers, online retailers and as an eBook.
Follow Yassmin on Twitter: @yassmin_a.