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Reclaiming Shaheda

By: Shaheda Begum


“My birth name was given to me by my grandfather, a man I loved dearly. ‘Shaheda’, derived from ‘Shahadah’, means faith. When I was younger, I wore the hijab. At first it felt so liberating, because it was my choice. But I was young, I didn’t understand what my choice meant for me and the way I would go on to be treated in life. Some time down the line, 9/11 happened; suddenly the worst thing you could be is Muslim. As I reached my teenage years, I wanted more and more to pull away from both my faith and my culture, as both were stigmatised. I didn’t want to be associated with the people who were crazy enough to believe God wanted them to hurt others. I didn’t want to be associated with the traditional gender roles that would be assigned to me if I gave in to my culture.

However, my main reason for adopting the nickname ‘Shay’ is that I got sick and tired of people mispronouncing my name. I don’t think it’s a hard name to say, but apparently it is. All through primary school, to secondary school, to college, I was called different variations of my name. I had a music teacher in secondary school, and she was filling out the register. She mispronounced my name, I corrected her, she didn’t care. She continued to call me what she was comfortable calling me. I stopped correcting people.

I applied to university and there was a section for preferred​ name. I put ‘Shay’ in that box. I felt happy with it for a while, but in my final year, I found myself yearning to be in touch with my culture. I had a friend from home who would always call me by my real name, ‘Shaheda’ and it brought me comfort. I was happy in the city I had chosen to study; Brighton was full of people from all different backgrounds. As the years went on, I realised more and more that I craved some link to my culture. I slowly realised ‘Shay’ and ‘Shaheda’ were slightly different people. ‘Shay’ was the person I presented to the world, a liberal, Westernised side of myself; ‘Shaheda’ came with all my childhood struggles of fighting against the gender discrimination in my culture, and fighting the Western world on their view of Muslims. I grew to realise I couldn’t be those people separately, and that I no longer wanted to. I wanted to be all that I was, all at once. I choose to go by ‘Shay’ in my new encounters, as it removes the initial stigma of being associated with Islam and the perceived backwards norms of desi culture. I feel that I have to do this as a Muslim, Bangladeshi woman, so as to maximise my opportunities in life, both in education and my career. However, when I am with my family, I am referred to a ‘Shaheda’, and dress conservatively. Of course, I am not thrilled that I have to present a certain self to the world, and to members of my culture and religion, but unfortunately I can’t afford to be who I want to be all the time.

My name is ‘Shaheda’, but you don’t want to make the effort to pronounce it correctly. ‘Shaheda’ makes you uncomfortable because it is ‘other’, it implies a difference in culture, in views and in beliefs. So, you may call me Shay, and be restricted to only knowing one side of me.



Shaheda’s goals and values, in her own words: “I believe it is important to give marginalised people a platform to talk about their experiences. I am currently studying Psychology and Sociology, and hope to do a masters in community psychology, which is all about dismantling power structures within societal institutions, and about supporting oppressed groups of people. It is about being critical of mainstream psychology, which regenerates knowledge that can be harmful as it is often taken as fact.”

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