by Juwairiya Patel

The danger of the single story


“Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign. But stories can also be used to empower, and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people. But stories can also repair that broken dignity.” ― Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche


Between me and the outside world there is always an unasked question, unasked by some through feelings of delicacy; by others through the difficulty of posing it appropriately. They either stare unabashedly or look away, eye me with curiosity or compassion, and then instead of saying “how does it feel to be a problem?” they say, “aren’t you hot with that on; if I see your hair does that mean I have to marry you”; or perhaps even, “do you ever take that off?” The more notorious thoughts crossing their minds may range from; “are you carrying a bomb underneath that?” , or maybe even; “oh you poor poor thing! You must be really oppressed by the men in your family.” At these I smile or look interested while the looks of curiosity directed towards me may sometimes invoke a reaction of amusement or irritation within me, depending on the mood I find myself in. Yet, to the real underlying question, how does it feel to be a problem, I rarely utter a word, when what I really want to do is display my theatrical capabilities in a dramatic retake of Shakespeare’s “hath not a Jew eyes?” speech. Yes, I reiterate Shylock’s grievances, “If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh?” and yet, I ask myself; why do I need to assert my humanness, why do I need to explain myself, why do I need to justify my existence? So, to the unasked question, how does it feel to be a problem? I seldom utter a word.

According to W.E Du Bois It is a very peculiar feeling to be a problem particularly when one is suddenly encumbered with the problematic nature of one’s existence. The moment when one comes face to face with this reality is a moment of stunning revelation. So how does it feel to be a problem ? For more than half my life I went through the ritual of putting on my hijaab which came to me as naturally as putting on any other piece of clothing. It was, is and continues to remain a choice. I went about my life oblivious to the fact that choosing to use a piece of material to cover my hair marked me as different; it marked me as something outside of and beyond the norm. For me, my hijaab is not just the command of my religion but rather it defines who I am, it is my identity, my existence. Little did I know that every morning when I don this piece of material, I also garb myself with a multitude of stereotypes and misconceptions which are then utilised to define who I am. Ironically, these very stereotypes and misconceptions are a far cry from who I really am and yet they are so entrenched. The piece of cloth that I adorn myself with tells a story of its own and yet in most cases the story that it does tell is a single story. As Chimamande Ngozi Adiche  postulates, “show people one thing over and over again, and that’s what they become.” We often forget that everyone’s lives and identities are comprised of a multiplicity of complex and intertwining stories. When the same story is heard and told time and again it becomes the only story that is ever believed. The danger of the single story is that it generates stereotypes and the problem with this lies not in the fact that these stereotypes are untrue but that they are often incomplete. Not only does Chimamanda Adiche remind us that we need to seek a variety of perspectives but she also iterates that we need to tell our own stories, stories that we can tell about our own personal experiences. I may tell my story different to another person who was a part of it but it the single story that we all know which perchance guides my narrative.

In essence the danger of the single story is that the individuals whose stories are told no longer become individuals capable of living their daily lives like everyone else does. Yet, it is language that has the power to change the narrative of the single story by rupturing it and thus reclaiming our stories through our own representations. In line with this, the narratives which guide our existence are the stories told on social media platforms. Muslim women across the globe are choosing to reclaim the Hijaab by electing to wear it. Social media is abuzz with accounts of women who choose to portray the Hijaab as a fashion statement or a political statement.Thus, the utilisation of social media is means of reclaiming identities through “archiving”. However, in addition to language and archiving, for me there is another means of reclaiming the Hijaab and my identity as a hijaabi. Reclaiming for me is to choose to unapologetically don the Hijaab and to go about my daily life wearing it.  In my opinion, this is the greatest statement that any marginalised individual can give. For me it says, “I have a right to live my life as I choose to live without justifying it to ease your fears, misconceptions or discrimination”.

So yes, my response to the discrimination I sometimes feel is anger and I articulate this anger. I conclude by echoing the sentiments of Audre Lorde. I speak here as a Hijaab wearing Muslim woman. I am not set upon destruction but upon survival. ‘I have suckled the wolf’s lip of anger and I have utilised it for illumination, laughter, protection, fire in places where there was no light, no food, no sisters, and no quarter. I am not a goddess or matriarch, neither am I a fiery finger of judgement or a tool of flagellation. I am a woman forced back on my woman’s power. I have learned to use anger and bruised, battered and changing I have survived and grown.’ I raise my voice with the voices of women such as Audre Lorde and Angela Wilson when I say, “I am moving on!” I am not ashamed of the anger which propelled me into action for it is not my anger that launches the rockets or missiles or pulls the trigger which slaughters my silenced sisters in war ravaged countries across the globe. Lastly, to those who force us to confront our identity I say, “you have caused a volcano to erupt within me but I have embraced who I am. I may never be able to completely remove the metaphorical veil that separates us but by choosing to wear my literal veil I can see myself for who I am. Thus, today, when I came face to face with my image in the mirror and consciously donned my veil, I did so as a symbol of devotion but also as a symbol of pride. I am who I am… and I will not justify my existence to you.”


About the author:

My name is Juwairiya Patel. I am a 24 year old South African Muslim woman who is passionate about social issues. I completed my undergraduate degree in Psychology at Unisa in 2013. Subsequently, I went on to graduate with an Honors degree in Psychology at Wits in 2014, after which I pursued and obtained my Masters Degree in Diversity Studies at Wits as well. In 2017, I completed a Post Graduate Certificate in Education at the Wits education Campus specialising in English and Life Orientation. I am currently a Grade One Literacy and Life Skills Educator at Spark Maboneng, with aspirations to complete my Masters degree in Psychology Insha Allah (God-willing). I am also an avid blogger with a deep rooted love for writing. My passion and interest for social issues together with my love for education continues to grow day by day. I strongly believe in the saying, ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’. We can change the world one word at a time.