A Christmas message about multiculturalism

It’s nearly Christmas! This means:

1. I’m feeling both guilt ridden & anarchic about the number of gifts & Christmas cards I’ve bought (zero)

2. and the complete lack of homemade decorations, and Christmas pudding.

3. And while I’m overcome by Christmas romanticism

4. I’m also battling with an inner grinch…

I had Christmas banned as a child and (small detail) I’m not Christian, so each year I feel like a Christmas fraud and I worry my children will see through my attempts to create meaningful tradition out of the cultural no-mans land that I inhabit.

I think it might be an unwritten law of blogging, parent-blogging at least, that December is dedicated to wish lists and that elf on the shelf thing, but I won’t be going there. To me Christmas is about lots of the usual fun (foooooooood, Bridget Jones on tv, all the wine, a 48 hour period of intense Christmas shopping involving tears and expletives, the tinsel debate – yay or nay?) but with an added layer of niggling worry that I’m doing it all wrong.

That time Christmas was banned

As the half-Iraqi, half-white, step-daughter of a Pakistani revert to Islam (all the hyphens), I grew up in an intersection between different faiths and cultures. We stopped celebrating Christmas after my parents began practising Islam when I was about 10, and we were herded with hot-pokers into an intolerant, uncompromising Islamic ideology. We had one year’s grace when we were allowed a Christmas tree on New Year’s day as an odd compromise, but that was just weird for everyone. The following year there was nothing. After that, whenever I heard Bob and the gang sing “do they know it’s Christmas?” with their earnest, self-important faces, I’d feel terribly sad. For myself. Clearly Ethiopia had more pressing concerns than missing out on a-white-saviour-complex-themed Christmas, but me? I was heartbroken. What can I say? 10 is a selfish age.

As the years went on, new challenges made the lack of Christmas a non-issue. My teenage years were spent searching for clarity amidst conflicting cultures and a religious ideology that I had little respect for. I’m mixed race but my white skin and blonde hair granted me white privilege. I felt it from a young age, especially when I saw my ‘half’ (I hate that phrase) siblings battle racism and stereotypes that bypassed me. But my whiteness also meant I grew up on the periphery of each of my cultures. I was a perpetual oddity; the novelty gori (white person…with loose morals) in the Pakistani-Muslim community, and to white British people I was the strange convert girl. As with many mixed race people my siblings and I were seen as half this and half that, lacking in culture and identity, rather than having it in abundance. Those feelings of cultural inadequacy have stuck.

My experiences leave me with conflicting ideas about multiculturalism. I see how positive and enriching it can be, but I hate that it’s become synonymous with lazy notions of tolerance. Multiculturalism doesn’t always play out as the utopian ideal of cultures existing in harmony. In reality tribalism, prejudice and abuse can seethe just below surface level. Especially when religious traditions are allowed to trump secular value systems.

My life turned upside down after I was forced to convert, but not one teacher or authority figure questioned my upset, my transformation, or the way I retreated into my shell. Religious misogyny was played out overtly, day after day, in my life and the lives of so many girls I knew, but my school and the wider community accepted the status quo dictated by religious leaders. I realised pretty quickly that people are more worried about political correctness and appeasing cultural sensitivities than demanding autonomy for minorities. So I kept my head down and focused on university knowing it would be my escape from religious fundamentalism. A few months after starting my degree I met my now husband, was disowned, and the rest is history. And heartbreak. And freedom.

During the cultural hiatus between disownment and having children I had to feel my way with all things festive and previously forbidden. Like all parents I want my children to enjoy things that I couldn’t and to have traditions in which they find comfort and happiness. But the guilt I was taught to associate with Christmas, birthdays, Halloween…and anything else enjoyed by the kafir (non-believers) was deeply ingrained. As time’s gone on I’ve become more rational, but Christmas will always be symbolic of a monumental and disorientating shift in my life. The ‘convert’ years have left me with a sense of cultural dislocation, so I continue to make up ‘tradition’ and cultural identity as I go along.


One thought on “A Christmas message about multiculturalism

  1. There are very few people I know for whom the holidays aren’t a completely loaded event. Your experience is unique and very interesting to read about (well-written as well). I’ve been away from organized religion for a long time, but I’m finding that the religion of consumerism is where I seem to regularly do battle – with myself and with others.
    I am getting more odd, the older I get and the holidays feel very much like an out-of-body experience. Enjoyed reading this very much.

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