By Alyzeh Ashraff
I was in the 5th grade when the 9/11 attacks happened. I walked into my elementary school classroom a few hours after we all witnessed the tragedy on television, and one of my friends at the time pointed at me and yelled, “No! She’s a terrorist!” All of the kids laughed and squealed and made me feel like a 9-year-old alien.
I remember this hurting me a lot. And it was definitely not the last time I was taunted for being a South Asian Muslim.
"I remember this hurting me a lot. And it was definitely not the last time I was taunted for being a South Asian Muslim."
With that said, I have lived a very privileged life. I spent my childhood and college years in Southern California in a very diverse area, where I was close to my parents and my siblings and involved with the South Asian Muslim community. I was very integrated into the “brown community,” but growing up, all I wanted to do was be far away from it. I wanted to live my liberal life and do things that I solely identified with, and not be affiliated with any sort of group. Most of all, I did not want to be affiliated with a group that most people identified as religious extremists.
I received a job offer in the Midwest — Columbus, Ohio — after college that I could not pass up, I packed up my bags, and moved across the country. I had to make a whole new set of friends, be away from my family, and away from my comfort zone. I did not have any South Asian Muslim peers in Columbus, but I did have a very diverse group of friends of all ages, backgrounds, and ethnicities. In this circle, I got to be “the brown girl.” I had something new to share about my culture. I had something to identify with because I was the only one among my peers.
Then yoga happened. I became more obsessed with my practice in Columbus than I ever was before. And I began to learn about my truth. What I wanted to stand for and who I wanted to be.
At the beginning of my 200 Hr Yoga Teacher Training experience, I was asked to write a journal response to the following question: "Who am I?"
"I am a UCLA Bruin Alum. I am a merchant. I am a Los Angelino. I am a yogi. I have wild big hair. I am a hip hop music snob. I love food. And I have an open mind."
"Then yoga happened. I became more obsessed with my practice in Columbus than I ever was before. And I began to learn about my truth. What I wanted to stand for and who I wanted to be."
At the end of the six month experience I was asked to answer the same question, "Who am I?"
"I am a Pakistani American Muslim woman, trying to push the envelope for other Pakistani American Muslim women."
I realized that you can change your job, your living situation, your hair color, your religion, your gender even — but you cannot change your ethnicity or race. It’s something you are born with. It’s something to identify with. Through yoga, I accepted that being Pakistani American Muslim is a part of who I am. And though growing up I never really cared about it, it became very evident through my yoga practice that I actually do care for it a lot.
In a world where Muslims and brown people are seen as conservatives, as religious extremists by many, it is important to speak up and educate those around you. Be proud of your identity and represent who you are in as many scenarios as you can. I followed my yoga practice and stayed true to my passion. I decided to speak up more, have more of a voice and presence as a Pakistani American woman. I continued to be liberal and do things that were out of the South Asian traditional norms, but instead of doing them as a wallflower — I backed up my actions with my Pakistani heritage and pride.
"I realized that you can change your job, your living situation, your hair color, your religion, your gender even — but you cannot change your ethnicity or race."
But as the years passed, I still continued to notice unjust situations where South Asian, Middle Eastern, and Muslim communities were still not receiving attention and compassion. I began noticing a major issue with the lack of awareness about the different ethnic groups in South Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa.
In November of 2015, a series of terrorist attacks devastated many individuals in Paris. When this happened, Facebook released a French flag overlay to promote solidarity for the attacks. No one seemed to care about the bombings in Lebanon that happened that same week. A few weeks ago, my Instagram and Facebook were covered in red, yellow, and black graphics for the Belgium attacks that had occurred in March. On Easter weekend, one week later, over 70 women and children died from a terrorist attack in Pakistan. I only saw two social media posts devoted to Lahore that week, both of which were posted by people from my brown community. The majority of the yoga and fitness brands, that I look to on a daily basis for inspiration and support, did not bring awareness to a tragedy that killed many innocent people in a South Asian Muslim country.
As a Pakistani American I was hurt on a personal level when I saw little to no social media coverage on this. The issue is that people simply did not hear about it due to selective media coverage. The extreme media bias, the lack of awareness, the lack of care is what caused the problem. The majority of American media does not care to report on attacks that occur in Muslim dominant countries — and I am curious to know why. Is it because people die in these third world countries all the time and so it is less important? Is it because these countries are not seen as top travel and vacation destinations so Americans care less? Because things that happen in these regions do not have as much of a global impact on the United States as they do in the Western World? At the end of the day, people, human beings are dying... so it still matters, right?
"As a Pakistani American I was hurt on a personal level when I saw little to no social media coverage on this. The issue is that people simply did not hear about it due to selective media coverage."
If individuals want to share about deaths that are happening in favored countries around the world, they need to wake up and realize that showing solidarity for only specific countries like Belgium and France is not actually solidarity, it's selectiveness.
Not everyone can be a news source, but people can speak up. We are here to create conversation and movement. Make a change and create a better world for the upcoming generations. So why is there fear to speak up?
"We are here to create conversation and movement."
In yoga, we learn about the idea of ahimsa, the concept of kindness and consideration of all people — South Asian, Middle Eastern, and North African countries included. Pakistan included. It is important to bring awareness, even if it’s to a few select people, the conversation will be fluid and will pass on to others. Following my truth and wanting to speak up about this issue, I realized that I may lose friends in the process and I might be seen as an outsider, but the lost lives of innocent people are more important than my reputation among a few individuals.
It is crucial to be proud of who you are. Be proud of where you come from. And speak up.
Alyzeh Ashraff is a Brooklyn based yoga instructor fascinated by fitness, movement, and culture. She was born and raised in Los Angeles where she studied Anthropology and Communication Studies at UCLA. After working within the entertainment industry with Walt Disney Studios, Alyzeh decided to pack her bags and move across the country to work in the merchandising industry and study yoga. Alyzeh resided in Columbus, Ohio for two years where she became a yoga instructor, and she is now a new resident to Brooklyn, New York.
She has a passion for fitness, meeting new people, and experiencing the world with an open mind. Her Vinyasa yoga practice has given her a voice of truth and has taught her how to live life in the present moment. Alyzeh is also quickly falling in love with photography and using it as her new medium of communication. Alyzeh believes that communities are here to create conversation, collaborate, and make a difference. Join her to get started.
She also teaches yoga at New Love City.