A mutual friend linked me up with Saalika Khan, Pakistani-American photographer, actress, filmmaker, illustrator and publisher of the zine, Bush. I met up with Saalika at the Nautilus Diner to talk about growing up Muslim in America.
When did you move from Pakistan to the States?
My parents came back to America in 1990 when I was 9 months old. I was born in Pakistan in 1989. My father brought my mother to Pakistan so everyone could meet her. My father came to America (specifically Texas) in the mid 80’s. My mom was born and raised in Texas. Many assume that my mother became Muslim for my father but that isn’t true one bit. She switched from Christian to Muslim while in college in her early 20s. She was already Muslim before she married my dad. There is always this awful assumption that Muslim men force their wives to change religions. Majority of Muslims in America are converts and they chose to come to the faith.
I was raised in Gaithersburg, Maryland, with American-Pakistani-Muslim customs. I am quite darn American (I attend bluegrass/folk music concerts, love John Denver, and know how to eat BBQ) but I have my behavior shaped by Pakistani culture as well to some extent. I’m a weird hybrid. Sometimes I am too “foreign” for my American friends, yet too Western for Asian and Middle Eastern folk.
As an Asian woman, I had very few role models that looked like me beyond my own family. I feel like I didn't realize the impact of that until I was much older. Who were your role models growing up?
I did not exactly have any role models of color growing up as a kid. Especially non-fictional role models. All the people I looked up to were anime characters, like Sailor Jupiter from the show Sailor Moon. Which I think is fine because she was a very strong female figure that I actually worked to model myself after (I even adopted her hairstyle). As far as Disney Princesses go, sure I liked them and I had favorites but I did not look up to them. People like to think I would turn to Jasmine (because of obvious reasons) but I was more of a Belle fan, anyway.
By age 10, I finally found a real life woman whose work I wanted to follow and learn from – Rachel Carson. That woman pushed through so many barriers. She called the world out on its abuse on the environment and warned everyone about great climate change before it was even a thing in the 2000s. She broke gender barriers as well. Carson was up against a male dominated science field! I still have my research project I did on Rachel Carson in the 4th grade. Learning about her opened my eyes to environmental balance and the future of this planet. I recommend everyone read her book, Silent Spring, and you will be kicking yourself for not fighting for environmental change sooner.
When I reached high school, I ventured more into race driven topics because I wanted to go into politics. I discovered Malcolm X’s work and that is when I knew I had found my role model of my adulthood. It was a post 9/11 world; For Muslims who were being harassed on a daily basis, we needed heroes more than anything. Heroes that would fight for our search of justice. But there was no one new, unless you count Ralph Nader. So many of us looked to activists from the past. I remember during the fresh wave of Islamophobia, Malcolm X quotes were being used left and right at home, school, and at the mosque. X was a hero to me when I needed him in high school. He still is till this day.
Since time has passed, more Muslims have stepped up and built reputations with great causes as their platforms. In the last 4 years, we have women like Noor Tagouri, Malala Yousafzai, Ibtihaj Muhammad, Kadra Mohammed, Stephanie Kurlow, and Dalia Mogahed. This is a very short list. In the second grade, I wanted to work for NASA and be an astronaut so much, and having a role model like Anousheh Ansari at that time would have been paramount.
I am an Asian Muslim in the visual and performing arts and I actually do not know many Muslim or Pakistani actresses in America pursuing what I am doing and making a career. I want other Muslims and Muslim girls to know that they absolutely can have a career in the arts. Statistically, most Muslim and Asian families put their children on the practical path of non-artistic academic driven careers. I wish I had a Pakistani/Muslim actress-singer-artist-musician-film maker-photographer role model to look up to. So I have to be one myself for everyone else.
There is a widespread misconception and expectation for Asian women such as us to be submissive, invisible and quiet. Do you think it's important for us, as artists, to challenge these expectations?
Absolutely! We often don’t get jobs because of this stupid misconception because it’s the thought of “how can a quiet push over woman even get the job done if she is too shy or scared to do anything?” That attitude needs to be erased. And the only way of doing that is by making our own paths, unapologetically. Eliminate the “sorry”s, start our own businesses, build a reputable platform, form and drive a cause! It is unfortunate, but we have to do the dirty work of normalizing our voices.
How important has social media been for you in terms of building a community and getting recognition for your work?
More important than it used to be like when I was in high school (2004-2008) and trying to show my art on DeviantArt. Social Media sites like Facebook and Instagram have made my work available to all kinds of demographics that family and friends can help spread around, and not just the concentrated online art community. I have larger potential to reach out across the nation, and even the world. This is for everyone.
Because I am marketing myself with my identity as an American Pakistani Muslim, social media can help me reach people just like me and we can connect. There is nothing better than a direct connection over something you are passionate about. I love seeing other people’s passions on Instagram, especially. The way the photo is composed for whatever subject they want to focus on, shows how much they care for it and want other people to like it as much as the author does.
Do you have any advice for women of color trying to make it in creative industries?
Do NOT white wash yourself. EVER.
Don’t change your name and/or appearance so people can accept you and approach you easily. Yeah, sure, white names are more approachable and less of a hassle, so you will get a job. Ditch that mentality ASAP. You are hurting yourself more than you know.
I made that mistake in high school because I didn’t want to stand out, wanted to fit in, and make myself accessible to other people. I thought by changing my name to Sally and changing the kinds of clothes I wear that the popular white kids wore, would make me more likeable. I was embarrassed...And I am truly ashamed of myself for that and I will never do that again. I felt like because I am brown, because I am Muslim, and because I have a Pakistani “foreign” name, I wouldn’t get any attention that would deem me socially acceptable, because I felt unattractive about my culture, country of origin, and faith…No one wanted to hear from a brown foreign girl. That’s how I felt. That is what I saw in high school. Once I reached college, I completely abandoned that way of thinking. I embraced everything about myself that made me what I am today. I stopped hiding. I even came out to my mother as Bisexual. Whenever I run into people I went to high school with, they refer to me as Sally, and I wince at it because it is a harsh reminder of what I did to myself so other’s would like me and not think of me as a weird “middle eastern” oppressed girl. I found out that people liked me because I was different. Classic high school moral of the story, but it is true. Being different is gives everyone else a fresh perspective on who you are, and it attracts friends!
Another example that I actually get just as upset at was when I went to a casting call. After my audition, the director and producer questioned my ethnicity and nationality. They then said “You should change your name to a stage name that is easier to go by.” They gave me examples, names I heard before. Names that belong to my beloved friends. And even though I loved those people with those names and have nothing against those names, I was disgusted. I strongly said “No, never.” The director told me that my name would be too hard to remember or even pronounce if saw on screen; “Its too ethnic.” Good! I want there to be ethnic names showing up on a movie theatre screen, fading in after the other. Movie credits should be just as diverse as the world. They should be relatable. I freak out whenever I see South Asian names scroll on the screen. “Yes! Samir Ansari! Good for you!”
I would love to see my name follow Lupita Nyong’o and Priyanka Chopra.