You're sitting down over a cup – or rather, a very large pot – of tea with Ayesha Chaudhry, a professor of gender and Islamic studies at the University of British Columbia in Canada, while she tells you her life story. At least, that's the feeling one gets when reading the pages of her memoir, The Colour of God, which was released mid-April.
From delving into her parents' upbringing in rural Pakistan, to her experience as a teenager in Toronto and finally her adult life, which is shaken by a personal tragedy, Chaudhry relates her memories while exploring how they have shaped her faith and identity. It's an immensely personal story – Chaudhry tells The National that she wrote the entire first draft in a notebook, in pen, in 2015, and kept making tweaks and edits until the book went to print in early 2021.
The Colour of God touches on many of the "hot topics" revolving around Muslims in the West, such as the niqab, which has been banned in many European nations – the latest being Switzerland.
Despite being pressured by her family to start wearing the niqab in high school, Chaudhry is not averse to veiling – as long as it is practised by choice.
“My niqab was a mirror of sorts; people couldn’t see my face, but it revealed truths about themselves, like the limits of their tolerance, their willingness to be open, accepting, respectful of values different from their own,” she writes, adding that veiling was also about “individualism”, “agency” and “control over my body”.
“One of the neat things about the form of this book is that it has allowed me to explore and share stories of a complex human being, who, among other things, engages in various levels of veiling throughout her life,” Chaudhry says, adding that she made sure to tread very carefully when writing about the niqab and hijab.
“The politicisation of the veil is one of the wreckages of colonialism, and this is a wreckage that Muslim women, especially, have to sift through. One of the things that happens when a practice becomes politicised is that it dehumanises the people practising it; it is abstracted into an idea away from the human. In this book, I was trying to return humanity to the practice, where the reader could witness the embodied costs that result from the politicisation of the veil.”
Far too often, non-fiction literature dealing with Islam falls on either end of a spectrum – the ultra-conservative cultural arguments fixated on female modesty, or the uber-liberal view that strives to "save" Muslim women by banning hijabs and niqabs to force them to assimilate better into western society.
Chaudhry describes these as “scripts” one falls into, and throughout her writing, considers the lenses she uses to tell her own story.
After experiencing racism as immigrants of colour when they arrived in Canada, Chaudhry’s parents turned to fundamentalism, preferring to be discriminated against for their chosen path of piety as opposed to the skin colour that they had no control over. They pledged themselves to a fundamentalist cult, and Chaudhary is all too aware that this part of her story fits easily into a narrow-minded, Orientalist “script”.
"I resent telling this story because it is too perfect. It gets too much attention," she writes. "My white friends love this story … I've used the story to sing for my supper, offered it as a course to be consumed … And though this experience is an essential part of my personal story, it is marginal, an exceptional among Muslims. It doesn't represent mainstream Islam or Muslims."
As she recounts and reflects on her path to self-discovery, Chaudhry weaves Urdu expressions and Quranic verses into her prose. She chronicles the cultural obstacles she faced as a daughter of strict Muslim parents in Canada, but also seems to make peace with her upbringing, partly by examining the socio-historical context of her own mother’s childhood.
“The stories we are raised with – religious, national, and familial – form our self-understanding,” she explains. “We are our parents’ stories, and they are ours. So, I think there was no way for me to speak of ‘my’ story, without speaking of my parents’ and grandparents’ stories… all these stories are intertwined.”
True to her background in academia, Chaudhry prefers to call her work "embodied theory" rather than a memoir, and The Colour of God is certainly more than a mere "coming of age" story – it's an enlightening lesson about recognising the limits and boundaries of family ties, forming your identity, finding your own path, processing grief and defining the terms of your faith.
It serves as inspiration for Muslims worldwide, whose religious convictions may not match their parents’ teachings.
“I’m grateful that I’ve been able to find my way – with love and support, through community – to a place where I can love Islam and feel that Islam loves me back,” Chaudhry says.
“It is essential for young Muslims to have access to a breadth of Muslim feminist literature because this literature allows us to be witnessed, to be seen, and in turn to imagine new futures.”
Chaudhry’s story will be relatable to any who have experienced an East-versus-West or religion-versus-culture identity crisis, and also to readers outside of these paradigms.
“I ask you, dear reader, to please avoid simplistic, exotic, dehumanised conclusions from this story,” she writes almost 100 pages into her book. “Try to find yourself in it. Look harder. You are here.”