smoking at prospect park made me realize that i exist beyond the identity of a brown muslim daughter

as a brown daughter, I am not an extension of my family. I am my own individual.

Art by Sanam Khatibi

A few days ago, I was getting ready to meet up with a close friend of mine at my favorite place of all time, Prospect Park. I haven’t seen her in nearly a year due to the pandemic and was overwhelmed with joy to be reunited with her. When I stared at my wardrobe filled with clothes I forgotten about as I’ve become accustomed to wearing pajamas with blotches of toothpaste, haleem stains, and pit marks every day, it felt strange to actually think of what I should wear outside. Naturally, I reached for my long sleeve black sweater and red pants. Something comfortable and breezy. Perfect for a picnic in the park.

I put the clothes on and stared at my reflection. Although I felt beautiful in what I was wearing, it also felt like something… wasn’t right? I looked through the rest of my closet and found a shimmery paisley top that I recently bought in a desperate splurge on retail therapy. I stared at the blouse and wondered if I should wear it. A pang of guilt crashed over me as I realized it was Ramadan and that my parents would (emphasis on metaphorically) kill me if they found out.

I put it away thinking it was too much of a hassle and grabbed my bag but hesitated. My phone vibrated as I received a text from my friend that she was about to head outside. I stared at the door and waited a couple of seconds to see if my mom was going to bust through the room at any moment. Quickly, I took off my black sweater, threw on the top, and looked at my reflection. The sleeves of the top ended with my shoulders, the v neck ran slightly down to my cleavage and hugged tightly around my breasts, its fabric wrapped around my waist. I adored what I saw. I began to take a few selfies just for pleasure and told myself that I would change into the black sweater just after a few pictures. But when I saw the images, I realized how truly beautiful I looked. I mean… it would be a shame if my dear friend didn’t get to see this in person, right? Suddenly in a split second, before I could even process what I did, I put the black cardigan over my blouse, tugged the collars to make sure my secret wouldn’t reveal itself, and ran out of the room. I quickly kissed my mother without looking at her in the eye and left.

As I walked to the train station, my heart pounded against my chest. But this was not the first time I did this. Prior to the pandemic, I would leave my house wearing long sleeves and jeans, something respectable as a Muslim girl that my parents approved of, and then would change into skirts that were a few inches past the “modesty scale” in public bathrooms. I would carefully and thoroughly canvass the neighborhood where I would make plans, intentionally making it a 40 min train stops away from local aunties and uncles.

When I arrived at the park, I looked around to see if there were any familiar faces in sight. I took off my black sweater, revealing my bare arms. My friend gasped and said that I looked beautiful. I smiled in response, trying to ignore the guilt lingering at the back of my mind.

We began updating each other on everything that has happened until my friend whipped out two joints. I realized it’s been almost 2 years since I last smoked. I paused for a moment, calculating in my head if I would be back to normal by the time I got home. But instead, I said fuck it and took the joint. When I got home, a twinge of guilt overwhelmed me. After a year of being constrained to home and being around my parents almost every second of the day, it felt strange and almost uncanny that a version of me revived itself. A version outside the obedient, studious, caring Bengali daughter I am.

I wonder if my parents met the real me, the version of me that enjoys the after taste of beer and nachos, the thrilling feeling that I’m rising on a hot air balloon when I smoke with friends, the sneaky temptation of wearing a v-neck without a tank top underneath and revealing a few centimeters down than I should…. would they not only disapprove but hate me as well?

It’s tiring to unlearn and constantly remind myself that as a brown daughter, I am not only an extension of my family but that I am my own individual. Is it possible or even realistic to balance both of these things? But I’ve come to the painful realization that my desire to desperately live life on my own terms will come with the consequence of disappointing my loved ones, a price that is dreadful but also inevitable.

I will have to make peace with this and that my desires will pain others. But I am fully deserving to experience life passionately on my own terms and that I can and will take ownership of my whole self & existence. And nothing will hold me back. Not even something that’s worse than the disapproval and disappointment. My fear.