Wednesday 21 March 2018


It is the spring equinox today, and all around the world Parsis, Zoroastrians and Iranians are celebrating Nav Roz, or No Ruz, which translates to New Day. But also, following Celtic and Saxon tradition, the goddess Ostera is celebrated by Wiccans and druids at Stonehenge, the goddess Isis brings rebirth to Egypt, Passover includes a thorough spring cleaning in Jewish homes, and in Russia, Maslenitsa is observed as a time of light, and a return to warmth. 

An article I wrote at the end of last year was recently reprinted in the magazine 'Parsiana' with an illustration of myself as Zoroastrian superhero, with a heart of fire, which is one of the coolest things that has ever happened to me. I plan on having a giant poster reproduction of it to remind myself on lost days that I have a heart of fire. Thank you, Farzana Cooper, fabulous illustrator!

In case you missed my article 'Half Parsi, Half Muslim, Full Woman', I am including it in full here...


I say my name, in full.
‘Date of Birth?’
I say my date of birth, in full.
‘Half Parsi, half Muslim,’ I say. In full.

She looks up at me. I am standing in the classroom, as each of us do when the roll call reaches our letter in the alphabet. ‘How can you have two religions?’ she asks. Maybe she is smiling, maybe she isn’t. I cannot remember because this process occurs every single year, on the first day of school after the monsoon holidays are over. ‘I don’t know,’ I say, although I do. I have two parents. And two religions. 

‘What is your father?’ In India, this is quite a common way of asking which religion you belong to. ‘What are you?’ begins with this classification, if your name doesn’t already ‘give you away’. ‘My father is Muslim,’ I say. And watch her write it down. I protest. How young I was when I began protesting is unclear to me. All I know is that by the time I was ten I had already decided I'd had enough of my mother’s religion being erased from my identity. For that is how I perceived the act of a figure of authority deciding for me that my father’s religion was the defining classification of my personhood.

I am a feminist. I came to an understanding of this word first through the writings of Alice Walker and her fulsome, inclusive definitions of womanist. But that was at university. So there was no word for what I felt at the thought of the denial of my mother’s religious identity. In India this is more than which place of worship you are allowed to enter – it weaves into every aspect of your life - your birthing ceremony, your childhood years, your teenage relationships, your marriage, your divorce or inability to divorce, and then the decisions that will affect your own children’s lives. My mother had a spiritual, emotional and psychological crisis when she fell in love with my father, because she had always assumed she would marry a Parsi like herself. Parsis are now a tiny community: a thousand years after leaving Persia because of Arab persecution, and of sheltering in India under the premise of never proselytising the religion – Zoroastrianism – we number less than 60,000.

You notice I have only just mentioned the ‘other’ religion. Indians know that to be a Parsi is to be Zoroastrian in a way the world does not want to know that to be Muslim is to be Malaysian, Kurdish, French, Moroccan, Norwegian, Somali. Naming ‘Zoroastrianism’ has only become a reality since we moved to England. A non-reality, ultimately, because no one has heard of Zoroastrianism. Well, unless you happen to be a bonafide Freddie Mercury fan, or you are a Professor of Iranian or Avestan Studies. The Jehovah’s Witnesses who used to knock on our door heard ‘Rastafarian’ every time my mother opened the door, and explained she did have religion in her life.

What was my Parsi mother’s greatest fear when marrying my Muslim father? That her children would be neither one thing, nor the other. Where would we belong individually, or as a family? Nowhere, she feared. And in part, her fears proved of substance. When my grandfather died, the Zoroastrian priest would not permit my mother to enter the sacred area where her father lay, wrapped in white muslin sheets, ready for his sky burial. She had been made impure by marrying outside the community and the pure land was no longer available to her. His cruelty broke her heart.

We make our choices. One day, when the need to visit the fire temple and light aromatic sandalwood became too great, my mother drove all of us to the agiary. The sign outside clearly stated, ‘Only Parsis allowed.’ My father prepared to wait outside the entrance. My mother, my younger brother and I began to troop inside. One small figure was missing. My older brother, clutching our father’s arm, refused to leave his side.

We make our choices. Are you Muslim or Parsi? What is your father? So when I was ten I placed the secret of my heart upon my mother’s palm. I knew no one would ever order me to prove myself a Muslim. If they did, couldn’t I simply burst into ‘Alam Nash Rakh Laka Sad Rakh’? Hadn’t my mother painstakingly taught herself Arabic so she could in turn teach us the calligraphy that would forever be written upon the scripts of our souls? Secure in my Islamic and Arabic traditions, I wanted to ensure my Persian Avestan traditions. There was one formal investiture and it was time conditional. Parsi girls may only ever enter the Zoroastrian faith through the navjote ceremony before we begin to menstruate. Oh that gatekeeping, so beloved to the male priestly communities across the globe, across time. Blood, the river of life, which runs gender-binary free through all human veins, suddenly turns into such filth that God himself would forsake us. He would be Himself here. Herself would merely commiserate over the monotonous banalities, send waves of abdominal healing and draw us ever closer.

It didn’t make much difference and it made all the difference in the world. My Parsi-ness, my Zoroastrianism, remains invisible, the secret I placed upon my mother’s palm. Remains the secret of my heart. My delightful father, who I worried would feel betrayed by my deliberate choice, was only moved to tears that his daughter felt so deeply about her relationship to the liminal, the mystical unseen ever-thereness of the spiritual world. I pray, as he does, in surahs and in gathas. A thousand years ago, his people may have persecuted my mother’s people. In me, persecution will not be internalised. Love made its decision so firmly, so deeply, that surely some tiny bat squeak of an echo is even now ricocheting back in time, to press my secret into the palms of forsaken hands. Here. Remember this. Love is a choice, waiting.

(first published in Sisterhood mag, Dec 26th 2017)


Sherry Blue Sky said...

Oh my goodness, how I adore your writing...and your beautiful family. How harsh, to deny a daughter entry at her father's burial. I love that your father was moved to tears at the depth of your belief in the mystical. I love most your closing lines, and the reminder that "Love is a choice, waiting." I also LOVE the cartoon. The little ones will think Auntie Shy is even cooler than they already knew. Smiles. It is always such a pleasure to read you, my friend. I hope you are doing well.

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