DiversifYA: Kaye M

KayeToday, we have Kaye M. on the blog! Kaye is an aspiring author, YA book blogger, and generally incredibly lovely. She joins us today to talk about being Muslim, stereotypes, and hijab bling. (Awesome, or what?!)

You’re missing out if you don’t follow Kaye on Twitter, so better remedy that here, and read her book blog here!

1. How do you identify yourself?

I think, first and foremost, I identify as human. No matter what beliefs they hold, every person on this Earth deserves a peaceful, happy life. It might sound cliché, but I want world peace and happiness for everyone. After that, I would identify as Muslim – which, to me, is pretty much the same thing. Muslim comes from the Arabic word for “peace” – within yourself, with God, and being able to spread to others around you.

(That’s the end of my religious soliloquy. Promise.)

In terms of my ethnic background, I’m pretty mixed. My dad is officially from Bangladesh, but his roots can be traced back to Yemen and Turkey. My mom’s bloodline is primarily Native American, but we have German and African-American genes as well.

2. What did it feel like growing up Muslim?

Honestly, I never felt out of place when I was younger. I’ve been homeschooled since day 1, so that was pretty much the thing that made me different from other friends. I feel very blessed to live in a community that is very open to diversity, for the most part.

I have a lot of good Muslim friends, but one of my best friends is Catholic (believe me, I couldn’t do any writing without her putting me through my paces).

I went horseback-riding for five years – with my scarf on.

I’ve volunteered at the local library, reported to the high school for my SAT and APs (which has a really funny story to it, but that’s another matter entirely) and gone about my daily life – without ever feeling like I needed to take off my scarf or dress differently to be relevant to society.

3. What are the biggest challenges? Conversely, what are the quirks/perks?

One of the biggest challenges is fighting against stereotypes. I still remember one afternoon in riding camp, when my instructor and another assistant cornered me about their assumptions in terms of Muslims and marriage (read: “Are your parents arranging your marriage?”). And then, of course, post 9/11, there was a lot of racial backlash, and having to constantly try and contradict media headlines that were determined to portray all Muslims as home-grown terrorists.

A recent example occurred after what happened in Boston. Even before the suspects’ names were released, Muslims were already being slurred on social media and pointed at in the news. My sister was volunteering in a reading program in the local library. The past two days before the tragedy happened, she had been settled with a little girl and the mom seemed pretty happy. Afterward, though, the girl never came back, and none of the remaining children wanted to sit with her.

It was really frustrating and hurtful.

I’ve never been inclined toward taking off my scarf. To me, it is my obligation to God, and my promise to myself, to keep myself on the level of respect and modesty I deserve. My favorite metaphor for the scarf is comparing it to the locked jewelry boxes you see in department stores. People have the option of touching the cheaper, on-display jewelry. They can try it on and put it back as much as they want.

But the jewelry in the box is special. You need to unlock it in order to take it out. It is precious. That, to me, is the scarf. It is my way of protecting myself. I am not a piece of meat. I am a person, and I want to be treated with the respect a person deserves. It’s not about a masculine hierarchy, or about sweating to death in the middle of the summer (which, FYI, is not as bad as it looks – Bedouins cover up in the sweltering desert year-round).

To me, the scarf is one of the perks, too. I’m one of those classic Austenesque girls (at least, that’s what my sister likes to call it). I love long skirts and romantic blouses, and it’s awesome how picking the right scarf and some suitable hijab pin ‘bling’ can really bring an outfit all together.

4. What do you wish people knew about being Muslim?

Just because one person does it, doesn’t mean that everyone else does. Like every other religion, we have fanatics, crazies and psychopaths. The men who were responsible for 9/11 are not necessarily the representation for every other Muslim on the planet. Every Muslim has their own interpretation of religion and how they apply it to their family.

Wearing a hijab does not mean I’m being oppressed. Muslim girls have parties, graduate, have bridal showers and joke around just like anyone else. You see Muslim girls who wear hijab, and Muslim girls that don’t – and that is okay. The girls who don’t wear hijab are not actually any different than the ones who do, in terms of their freedom.

5. What are the biggest cliches/stereotypes you’ve seen?

I think I’ve mentioned them already – at least, the ones that hijab-wearing girls will hear a lot. Especially around this time of year, in the summer, you get at least one narrow-eyed old lady who passes by in the supermarket, pauses meaningfully and then bellows, “Is it just me or is it hot in here?”

I think it’s hilarious now.

BONUS: What is your advice for writers writing diverse characters?

I discussed this yesterday with Ellen Oh, after her brilliant post on diversity and POC writers, and my main advice would be: “Don’t assume.” As a diverse writer who has ideas planned in cultures that I’m not part of, I always make a point of discussing my research with others, trying to track down experts to ask questions, and double-checking every stereotype.

Just like not all Christians are the same, Muslims come in every shade. Take this diversity into account. Be respectful. Bring your love of the subject into play, rather than writing what you expect will be exotic or new in the market (ie. after I identified myself as Muslim in my blog’s biography, I got a few e-mails from people who pretty much wanted me to confirm the stereotypes they’d slipped into their YA, or a token Muslim character who was just there to diversify the plot).

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6 Responses to DiversifYA: Kaye M

  1. Great post! Oh go on, tell the SAT story, it sounds like it’d be a good one!

  2. It really is such a huge misconception that all women who take on certain religious restrictions, particularly with regard to fashion, are oppressed. I personally don’t really adhere to any of them, but I have many, many friends who, as Orthodox Jews, wear only skirts, long sleeves, cover their hair at all times with scarves or wigs… because they *chose* to. We came from the same background, the same schools, the same summer camp; they *can* wear jeans and T-shirts and leave their hair uncovered or whatever just like I do. They *choose* not to, as you do with your scarf, because it’s a value you all opt to uphold for your own personal reasons. I think people forget that just because you subscribe to a religion doesn’t mean there’s necessarily immense pressure on everyone to adhere to it the same way. We make the choices we want. It’s one of those “This is why America is kinda cool” things.

    Great interview 🙂

  3. WONDERFUL interview, Kaye!!! As a Puerto Rican goddess… I mean, woman… stereotypes are never far from my neck of the woods. BUT it is precisely as you say: we are not all the same. It’s crucial that people respect us for who we are, not for who they want us to be.

    Also, I NEED TO HEAR THE SAT STORY.

    That is all <3

    • I did not know you left a comment! <3 <3 Ha ha, Puerto Rican goddess indeed. And you shall hear the SAT story whenever you wish. 😛