This episode was recorded back in the summer of 2019 and it was actually the first time I’d met my guest, Mariyah Zaman, face to face. It’s impossible to know how conversations like this are going to go, especially when it’s with someone you don’t know. But Mariyah’s candid and matter-of-fact demeanour made it a joy to record. Mariyah is passionate about her faith and her work, which really shines through in this chat. Having been brought up in a Muslim family myself, a lot of what she spoke about resonated with me personally. But her musings on identity and politics are something we can all relate to.
If you’d like to listen to the episode, click here.
Welcome to Episode Seven of Critically Speaking.
Mariyah Zaman: I’m actually consciously trying to post less, I feel like I post too much on Instagram. But I use Instagram as a tool to express myself. Instagram’s my favourite, it’s the creative platform. And the creative side is what I’m exploring at the moment, because I feel like I haven’t totally explored that side, in terms of sharing. Because there’s one thing producing whatever you want at home and on the side, but sharing that is a totally different story.
Jafar Iqbal: Why though? Is that a fear of sharing, or you just haven’t done it yet? Because, obviously, doing creative writing…so I did creative writing, and you learn to just give your work away.
MZ: Yeah, I’m struggling, I’m struggling with that. And it’s partly why the only place that I’m comfortable putting out creative writing work regularly is in an Instagram caption. I feel very vulnerable putting out creative writing unless there’s something hardcore to it because I feel like the persona that I have, especially being a community activist and stuff, it’s, like…creative writing is soft. This is very controversial but creative writing, to me, in my head, is my inner voice saying to me, ‘this is your soft side, and then your activist side is like your hardcore, equal rights, blah blah blah, side’.
JI: Do the two not meet?
MZ: And then the only time I put content out to do with creative writing is when they do meet.
MZ: For example, when I write poetry or something, spoken word, a lot of people say that you don’t have to only write about issues to do with minorities, right? Because we’re more than that as minorities. But in my head, I’m like…the activist comes out of me and I’m like, ‘well, no, because if there’s anyone better to convey issues about minorities, then it’s the minorities’. Me. I.
JI: Does that mean you do write about stuff that isn’t related to minorities?
MZ: I do, I do, but I don’t feel like it’s as worthy, in a way. I don’t feel like it’s as impactful. Why would anyone care about my cat, for example?
JI: People care about cats!
MZ: Well, I know they care about cats, but I just…
JI: They probably care about cats more than they care about minorities.
MZ: Yeah, they probably do! And that’s…
JI: This is part of the problem.
MZ: That is part of the problem. I dunno. I feel like I’m still exploring more ways to express myself and, obviously, I’m still learning that the little things in life, people do care about. For example, going back to the community activist thing. I’ve been doing work here and there in anti-racism, anti-Islamophobia areas. And I notice that the way I approach politics in itself is very different to a lot of my peers, in the sense that I’m not as hardline black-and-white as a lot of people in politics are. Even though, as much as you don’t want to empathise with the other side, it’s so essential. Before anyone gained power in any part of the world, the first thing that they did was understand the people. I think that’s kind of what I’m trying to do creatively, is approach politics creatively.
JI: So you’re quite a political person then?
MZ: I am. I think, innately, I am. It’s probably political with a small P, though, not in the sense that I support this party, I support that party. There are parties I align with more, definitely, 100%, without a doubt…
JI: Let’s just make that clear!
MZ: (laughing) Let’s just make that clear! So this is what I’m trying to define at the moment, but what I’ve always done is trying to appeal to as many people as I can. That’s why knowing your audience and the way that you navigate in social media is so important. It’s really important to know who you’re talking to because, if you know who you’re talking to, then you know what you can empathise with, you know what you can relate to in the other person. But saying that, not to change your principles based on who you’re talking to.
JI: Well, I was gonna say – if you’re adapting for your audiences…
JI: …how much of you is left in what you’re writing?
MZ: That’s a very interesting question, because that’s something I’ve had to be very wary of. Because there’s one sense adapting to the extent that you’re totally losing your own voice and your own message and your own principles. Especially, like, everything I do is for the sake of God. All of that feeds directly into what I do and how I do it. I’m personally not the kind of person that prefers slandering people online who have different opinions to me. I’m not a confrontational person, and if you’re someone that’s political, that can be kind of a problem.
JI: Would you respond to somebody who said something you felt was wrong?
MZ: If it was someone who I think would be willing to listen, yeah, probably. I see a lot of posts and I see a lot of people commenting, and people replying to the comments, fighting in the comments section. All you need to do is read those sections to realise that, unless that person is willing to listen, which 80% of the time they aren’t, then there’s no point in engaging. Because it’s just screen-to-screen, at the end of the day. That’s really important to remember, because you need to know where you put your energy, because it’s tasking work. I mean, I’ve been in community work since I was fourteen, fifteen, properly, and I’m still yet learning, navigating my way around the political sphere and the activist sphere. But I’ve kind of taken a step back because I realised it was changing me as a person, in the sense that I was becoming more angry, and I was becoming more like…it’s heavy stuff! Especially when you have all these politicians who are talking about you in ways that are inherently racist, but they just don’t want to put the word to it. And the people are saying the word ‘racism’ is overused. No, it’s just more prevalent, and it’s just more open. I think that if you’re someone that isn’t political, then you’re someone that’s very privileged, because it means that you have no reason to fight for anything. And I feel like, even the richest person in the world…I’m gonna say this, the whitest person in the world, the most British, the most male person in the world, even if you’re sitting at the top of the pyramid and you have nothing to fight for, I feel like you really need to look at your life and you need to evaluate who you should be platforming if you don’t feel like there’s anything in your life to fight for. As much as I don’t like delving that much into political pettiness, which I see a lot, I feel like I don’t have a choice when it comes to being political, or taking on a political side or an activist side or a radical side. But it’s kinda fun, anyway, especially if you’re a creative. You want to stir up a bit of discussion because you want your work to be heard. You put a lot of work in to your work.
JI: Where does the activism come from?
MZ: The thing is, see, I don’t have an emotional back story.
(laughing) Aw, that’s a shame!
MZ: I don’t have an emotional back story, I’m like every other minority kid. My mum would tell me, like, ‘oh, you know, on my way to school, I’d be called “Paki”’. As sad as it is, it’s not like a big deal. It’s something that happened to so many people and, despite the fact that she didn’t look particularly dark – because my mum hasn’t got very dark skin – but she just looked different. And that’s all it took for her to have racial slurs thrown at her.
JI: That was here in Wales?
MZ: Yeah, yeah. So my mum was brought up in Butetown. Even at the time, there was like all-girls schools and things like that. I don’t have that, but I do have…so I started wearing the hijab when I was sixteen. That’s when I had to make sure I was equipped to deal with judgement, to deal with everything that someone that wears the hijab gets. And that is questioning, and a microphone you weren’t born to have, a spotlight on you. I wore it solely to better my relationship with God, and solely for the purpose of my faith. So when I walk into school and I get asked questions that I didn’t even know could be asked. I’m the type of person that doesn’t like feeling like I’m caught out. If somebody asks me a question, I try to do everything I can to answer it in the best way that I can. But because it was such a personal choice – like, my parents didn’t even know I was doing it…
JI: Oh, so it wasn’t something you talked to your parents about?
MZ: No! Literally, I bought a headscarf and then, on my first day of Year 11, I remember this very clearly. I was texting my friend, ‘oh my god, this is going to be so awkward’. So I did the whole walk to school and I was like, my head down, I didn’t want to see anyone I knew. And I’m telling my friend, ‘wait for me outside the form, I don’t wanna go in on my own’. She waited outside, and then the class was full because I was the last one in. And so I walked in and everyone’s head turned, they were like ‘who is that?!’ And it was like, crazy! It was…when you’re visibly Muslim I feel like, especially when I was younger and post-9/11, you feel like you’re suddenly accountable for everything. That was a big driver in the reason why I felt like I had to educate myself, because I’d started to doubt myself. I was like, ‘if I can’t answer questions like this, does that make me a good Muslim?’ That was why I suddenly became a bit more political, a bit more activist-y. I see the young kids of today and they follow meme pages on Instagram. But often, hearing them, particularly the meme pages that have Muslim memes or Asian memes, all those memes, you’ll see stuff about Jeremy Corbyn on there. Or stuff about Boris Johnson just becoming the Prime Minister, and that’s on meme pages. And my younger sister and all my cousins who are about thirteen, fourteen, they’re growing up in this time where talking about politics, even if it’s through a meme or whatever, it’s totally normal. And I remember when I was in school, they were trying so hard to get kids interested about politics and a lot of kids would be, ‘oh, politics is boring’. But now you don’t hear kids saying that as much. You say ‘awh, yeah, yeah, Jezza, he was at Glastonbury, awh, Stormzy, he was talking about this’.
JI: It’s normalised.
MZ: It’s so normal, and it says so much about the society we’re living in today. Things that used to be controversial aren’t controversial anymore. If you’re someone who is in a marginalised community or in a minority community or whatever, you’re no longer becoming a minority in the sense that you’re being talked about a lot. You’re being talked about a lot, but you’re not talking for yourself, and I feel like that’s probably why…I just feel like you can’t escape it, you don’t need an emotional backstory anymore to just be like, ‘yo, I’m really activist about X, Y and Z’. I feel like my religion teaches me that you need to care for others, you need to…justice is such a big deal in my values, and I think that kind of motivates me. I feel like recognising the position that you’re in – like, being born in the UK, having access to free education, water, food, a roof over your head, going to uni – all of this stuff adds up. And a lot of people, they don’t have that. And I think, just recognising that should make you political, in the sense that, ‘well, I have all of this and a lot of people don’t, so what can I do with my good wi-fi and my social media to amplify change?’
JI: What came first, the strong attachment to Islam or the strong attachment to politics? Or was it together?
MZ: Aw, 100% my attachment to Islam. So thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, those were the years where my religion was meaning more to me. And then when it came to the pinnacle, which is when I became visibly Muslim, when it’s not just a thing you do at home, where it’s a thing that you have to talk about and answer people on. You need the foundation, which is your religion, to be able to address questions, but I think I never became more religious because of other people, because I had to answer other people. I became more religious because that was, growing up, who I was as a person. And as a young person, you always question your religion, even if you’re born with it, even if your family practise it, whatever, you’re always questioning it. And I asked a lot of questions, and I still ask a lot of questions, and I think it’s really important if you’re developing as a person in any sense, whether you’re religious or not, asking a lot of questions is so important. So I ask a lot of questions and I made sure that I surrounded myself with people who are on a similar path of trying to be better Muslims. I feel like politics is so secondary to your values and your faith. Islam drives everything that I do, to this day, 100%. If my Islam is weak, then parts of myself become weaker, because it’s literally ingrained into who I am as a person.
JI: Is the activism that you do also related to Islam as well?
MZ: Right, so most of the work that I do is anti-Islamophobia work. Raising awareness that Islamophobia is a thing, firstly. Educating people on how to tackle it, how to address it. It’s always been a problem but it’s becoming a massive problem, and people are trying to brush it under the carpet. And I don’t think that’s right because Muslim women are affected the most when it comes to Islamophobia, because we’re visible. We’re vulnerable, quote unquote.
JI: Why do you think it’s more prevalent now?
JI: Is it because people know the word now, or is it because you think there has been an increase in it?
MZ: Incidences that happen – for example, 9/11, London bombings, what happened with the Lee Rigby case, Brexit actually was a big one as well – research has shown that there’s been spikes of Islamophobia by, like, 200%. It’s literally shown statistically that there’s always a rise when something happens. A terrorist attack happens, and it’s always to do with the press coverage of that attack. I was in a workshop the other day and they said that when you search the word ‘Muslims’, or when you search the words like ‘we’ll kill all Muslims’, ‘we want to kill all Muslims’ or something, there’s like a hit of two million articles, all with the words ‘kill all Muslims’.
JI: It’s terrible.
MZ: It’s normal, it’s just normal to hate on Muslims.
JI: You mentioned that you don’t have an emotional backstory. Have you experienced racism, Islamophobia?
MZ: Only until educating myself about what actually Islamophobia is, because Islamophobia isn’t just a call-out on the street. It’s something that is sometimes very internalised. When I actually learnt about what Islamophobia was, after years and years, I realised that when I started wearing the hijab in school, a lot of questions that were being asked to me were very innately Islamophobic. When I started wearing the hijab it was, like, race and religion were visible. Before I started wearing the hijab, it was race. If you don’t question or have dialogue from a very early age, then that could stem into something so much worse when you’re older.
JI: Well, it’s interesting because you talk about primary school, about high school, and then university. What was your experience of young people there?
MZ: It’s interesting because I feel like it varies from university to university. University to me, and Students Unions to me, are very political spaces, and I didn’t find that in my own. People were shocked at the turnout of my events in Black History Month.
JI: As in, there was a big turnout?
MZ: Yes. Because they didn’t think there was a demand for these events, they didn’t think that it was a problem. They didn’t think that recognition for our black students was something that needed to be done because everything was sound, right? But then, when you shake it up with a campaign that everyone’s involved in…honestly, they were surprised that I had the turnout that I did. And the black people at my events were surprised at the white turnout. I had a screening – do you know the movie Hidden Figures? So I held a screening, and I did it in collaboration with Christians Union at my university. Then I did a Q&A after, which was probably the most interesting part of that whole event. Everyone went through the same experience, they all watched the same film. Then I posed the question – so, in the film, there was a lot of examples of colour segregation, like coloured toilets and coloured workspaces, etc. etc. And I asked the question, ‘do you think racism has improved’? Straight away, you had a white person put their hand up and say, ‘ yeah man, like, we don’t have that stuff anymore, we don’t have coloured toilets and all that thing going on, oh my gosh, things have become so much better’. And then you had a black woman who put her hand up and say, ‘things are exactly the same as what you see in that film, but they’ve become structural and they’ve become organisational’. She was very fierce. She was like, ‘I experience racism to a level that you see happening in that film’. And everyone’s shocked like, ‘woah, racism is still there!’. It was crazy! (laughing) And it was like, ‘what are you talking about, we don’t see the sign “coloured” anywhere’. But that’s not the point, you know? Then one black guy said, ‘you know, I’m actually surprised but I’m so glad at the number of white people that have come to this event, because that’s what we need, we need a mixture of people to understand the issues that we face’. And then one girl came up to me, she’s a white girl, and she went up to me after the event. She was like, ‘I didn’t really think racism was still a thing, I thought it was something that only existed in our world wars’. And this is 2019, man! You know, we have social media, we have movements like Black Lives Matter, we have police brutality, we have so much going on. All you need to do is open up Twitter. I’m surprised that there is still an ignorance.
JI: How long were you an [Equality and Diversity] Officer for?
MZ: A year.
JI: Do you think there was a shift in that year, do you think you made a change?
MZ: So, my role was part time. I was a full time student. There’s so much more I could have done, but I wasn’t paid enough to do it. I was the lowest-paid person in my SU…
JI: Which is problematic in its own sense.
MZ: Everything that I did, I can only say that I helped, because you never know. But I hope that it has sparked some sort of cultural awareness or change.
JI: What do you think about Wales in general? How do you think it, at the moment, is tackling issues around Islamophobia, issues around the treatment of minorities?
MZ: In terms of the cultural understanding of others Wales, in it’s right to be, is quite behind. South Wales, North Wales, West Wales, there’s three totally different demographics of people in itself. South Wales is the place where we’ll have events about cultural awareness, it’s quite diverse. Cardiff particularly, Newport, Swansea. You don’t have many Muslims – you do have Muslims that exist in Aberystwyth, places like that – but you don’t have as many Muslims living in other parts. But the people that do live there or sometimes visit there, they will get attacked or…like, I was on my way to Snowdon in a bus full of people. We stopped to ask directions from this farmer and he goes, ‘F off, you Pakis’.
MZ: And it was to a bunch of Arab guys. Yakeeb comes into the bus and he said, ‘oh, that’s what he just said’ and we’re all laughing because, first of all, they weren’t even Pakistani, it was hilarious. But second of all, we were like, ‘right, on we go!’ I think the first step to any change is dialogue, but when you don’t have that dialogue and that understanding between people from different cultures, I think it starts from there and that’s how you can address Islamophobia. I feel like, out of most regions in the UK, Wales should be the people that empathise with minorities the most because they are a minority in themselves. Welsh people face Welsh racism. I’ve heard Welsh people speak to me about the fact that they were just speaking in Welsh and they got shut down by people, and I feel like they should empathise with the struggle of being someone who comes from a minority, or lives as a minority. I think there’s work to be done, but it’s difficult when it’s not as widespread, populations aren’t as widespread in South Wales as it is in other parts of Wales, but I think there is a lot to do. It’s gonna take a lot of effort to get to those places. One key example was when I was with an organisation, I volunteered with MEND – Muslim Engagement and Development – that tackle islamophobia. We did an event in Caerphilly first time, and it was an event called ‘Ask A Muslim’ during Islamophobia Awareness Month, and we had a panel of Muslims who came from different perspectives. And we had a large audience of non-Muslims in the community centre, and that event was barged in to by this guy who called everyone in the audience terrorist sympathisers. Kids, families, everyone who was there, right? The guy just barges in, he goes ‘you’re all terrorists’, and then he points to the audience and he goes, ‘you’re terrorist sympathisers’, and he gets so aggressive. I was, like, shaking because I didn’t know what this guy was gonna do. I didn’t know whether he was gonna come in and punch someone in the face. Who knows? Turns out he was an ex-police officer. Before he came into the community centre he wrote his details to the staff that worked there, saying ‘hey, you’ve got these weirdos over there, if you need any help to deal with them, I’ll come to your rescue’. I managed to stalk him on social media, like, I managed to track him down…
MZ: …and he was commenting on the event page of the community centre. That really scared me, because it’s like a face to a troll. It was a really scary reality for me, in the sense that these people – they don’t just comment for the sake of it, some of them actually put action into their words. So scary! Like the fact that he came out of his warm home on a rainy, cold night…
JI: Just to do that.
MZ: …to disrupt an event that was solely for the purpose of tackling a misconception. People in the event were like, ‘come and sit down then, you idiot, if you don’t like what these people are about, come and question them, come and sit down’. That was Caerphilly, man, that was, like, not too far from Cardiff. And so… (Mariyah sighs) there’s work to be done, but it’s just so scary. I could have passed that guy in the street, I would never have known that he would have held views against me. Freedom of speech and hate speech, to me, are two very clear things, I don’t know why people get them mixed up.
JI: This is gonna sound like a really silly question…
JI: …why do you love Islam so much?
MZ: I’m a Muslim, I believe in Allah and I believe in everything that Islam stands for. I think that someone who solely believes in God and that Muhammad is the messenger of God, then that’s enough of a driver. When you look at the world and you’re like, ‘oh my gosh’. You turn on the news and you look at it, it’s quite bleak, etc. Sometimes I’m so grateful to be Muslim because, as a Muslim, you know that there’s a life after this. That kind of makes it worth it, living through everything that’s happening. When you know, it’s like my purpose in life, it’s like my pledge, you know what I mean? The reason why I am fine with not doing things that I’m not supposed to do, it’s something difficult to explain, it’s so spiritual. It’s more of a spiritual connection. Like, I don’t have the answer to give you as to why I love Islam so much, but it’s literally because I believe in Allah and I believe in the teachings of the Quran. And I wouldn’t be the person that I am today without my religion. It’s probably why it’s so difficult for me to be like…if I was a scholar and if I was someone that preached Islam, I would give you a really neat and nice, perfect sentence as to all the reasons why I love Islam.
JI: But that answer is better because that’s a genuine answer.
MZ: Islam is something that I live and breathe every day, it’s my way of life. It’s through action. I have to do it through showing, and I don’t do showing for other people, I do it as an expression of my identity. If you see anything that I put out on social media and it’s about my religion or it’s about my faith, it’s just any other reasons someone would post about their holidays, because it’s what they’re living at the time. It’s something that they wanna express, and it’s something that they feel so passionately about. And that is the same case with me. As someone that’s born and raised in Wales, in the UK, I’m still understanding the dual identities that I have. And not even dual, the triple identities that I have. As a Muslim, as someone that’s Pakistani, as someone that’s British as well. Navigating those identities and through arts and through creativity, I’m understanding and trying to reconnect with the culture that I have, my other culture, you know? The side that I haven’t been very connected with, faith included. Being a creative is so hard because your work is motivated by things that hit the most. For me, I feel like any creative piece of content I put out, whether it’s writing, whether it’s anything, anything that I put out, it literally has to come from the heart. And when you’re still defining your identities, and your place within your different identities that you’re navigating, if you don’t know those identities then it’s very important that you find that and share it with everyone else. So I dunno, that’s what I think. Yeah, that’s kind of where I’m at….
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