Please welcome the Social Justice Digital Media Intern, Samreena Farooqui!
TheHumanist.com: What is your educational and work background?
Samreena Farooqui: I’m currently a psychology major at Florida State University (FSU). I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that for the entirety of the time I’ve been in the US, I went to public school in Broward County, Florida, which is the sixth largest school district in the US and one of the most severely underfunded districts in the country. As for my work background, most of the things I’ve done that I consider important have actually been in the capacity of a volunteer rather than a paid worker. This includes organizing the Southeast Secular Student Regional Conference (S3RC) this past year; helping organize Take No More Fest, an event featuring local femme and non-binary artists with the intention of benefitting community causes such as local trans initiatives, women’s shelters, and community mental health centers for the past two years; working with local and student organizations; and acting as an officer of student organizations like Planned Parenthood Generation Action and the Secular Student Alliance at FSU.
TheHumanist.com: How did you first learn about humanism?
Farooqui: My first exposure to the word “humanism” had less to do with human-driven action in this world and more to do with the Renaissance movement. There’s no exact moment I can remember when I learned about the kind of humanism that is meant at the AHA. The desire to be humanistic preceded recognition of humanism as this kind of a concept for me, I think, much like I felt like a deity didn’t exist long before I knew the term “atheism.”. No awakening derived from reading Dawkins here, I’m afraid.
TheHumanist.com: Did you grow up in a traditional religious faith? How did it impact you?
Farooqui: I grew up in a Muslim family. After immigrating to the US, we went through what a lot of other Muslim families go through: a revival of faithful observation. My childhood felt very secular in the moment, with some prominent religious features in retrospect. When I was a child, most of my family didn’t pray five times a day, even when we lived in Pakistan, which wasn’t a result of my family being affluent (because, trust me, even in Pakistan, we were not affluent). Praying five times a day was seen as a challenge by us too, even though all our alarm clocks rang when it was time to pray. I often note how Muslims in the West feel pressure to consider this regimen not a big deal, specifically in order to avoid certain stigmas in the West, where a moment of doubt or lapse in faith is seen as a chink in some kind of armor that can be exploited to the detriment of other Muslims. As immigrant children in the US, my sister and I even wore swimsuits, belly-flaunting and leg-baring.
Over time, my family did find itself becoming more observant, just as a sort of protection, a way to preserve what we considered our culture and prevent it from slipping away from us. We couldn’t build tandoors here. We couldn’t recreate those days of Eid where, of course, our absence from school was excused and not a single person we knew wasn’t celebrating. We suddenly didn’t find ourselves waking from naps to the ululating voice of a local imam. I couldn’t run around anymore on the flat roof of my grandparents’ home under clotheslines of vibrant fabrics that we’d pinned up in the absence of washers and dryers, which I didn’t know were actual things people anywhere in the world had, while waiting for the lights to finally come back on. We couldn’t walk to the corner and buy some sheermal and haleem anymore. This was what we found we could hold on to. The more it was challenged, the more we felt we couldn’t let it go. This was the case even for things we had never actually done before, but that our grandmothers constantly had asked us to do.
Of course, there isn’t even a monolithic Muslim experience. Different Muslim-majority countries and regions have different customs, and I want to avoid positioning my experience as the singular Muslim experience. After becoming an atheist, though there are certainly a lot of different facets to my atheism as well, I still can’t let all of this background go in its entirety. You can stop believing, but can you really leave the ummah? Even when no one is forcing you to stay, how do you voluntarily give this up?
TheHumanist.com: What interested you most about interning for the American Humanist Association?
Farooqui: Probably the most significant point of interest for me was the intersection of social justice and secularism, which of course, are inherent in humanism. It doesn’t and has never made sense to me to recognize the human agency that we all have, to whatever degree, and then to decide, actively decide(!), to not do anything with it.
TheHumanist.com: What book has influenced you the most?
Farooqui: Probably The Stranger by Albert Camus or The Lover by Marguerite Duras. I know, that’s two books. I don’t think I know how to isolate the impact they have had on me, so maybe we can bend the question around the answer a bit. These are significant to me because they promote no illusions about the things which may befall us. Also, I’m a sucker for stream of consciousness and absurdism. The Lover is about a French family in colonial Vietnam and involves not overly expository explorations of complicated constructions and intersections (racial, gender, sexual, imperial/colonial, mental illness, poverty, age). It feels like it’s actually coming from a full person rather than an itemized list of intersections clumsily mashed together, masquerading as a character who desperately wants to be fleshed out (because it’s actually autobiographical). In my daily life, it never seems like the sheer complexity of people’s lives (read: my life and the lives of others like me) is ever acknowledged, so I often feel like I’m indebted to these books.
Another book I read around the same time that I also recall when I think about books I feel indebted to is A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini. I think I was only able to fully acknowledge my own apostasy and dare to face the daunting prospect of defying entrenched and potent powers once I read this book. I remember being on the green in front of my high school where my friends and I went for lunch, reading this book and willing myself first to not cry, and then to rescind the tears that came from a place of both fear and immense gratitude, and not succeeding in the least.
TheHumanist.com: If you could have dinner with any three people in the world (living or dead), who would they be and why?
Farooqui: This question has always seemed bizarre to me, because I’m one of those people who has a tendency of not talking to people very much at the dinner table. On the couch with a bucket of something that is usually served in a bucket is more likely. Even if it weren’t for the fact that no names are coming to mind, I firmly believe in not having heroes, so I think I would probably just call up people I know, especially if I know they’re having trouble financially at the moment.