by Rianté Naidoo
*This article has been amended to protect the identity of some individuals (17.02.2016).
The women of the Garda family are far from “mainstream Muslim” women. This family of three daughters and seven granddaughters run their own businesses and rarely wear the hijab. Although unconventional, as modern women they fit into their conservative communities by blending their Islamic beliefs and Western influences.
The day Sumayya Mohamed finished high school at the Johannesburg Muslim School in Fordsburg, she packed away her abaya and hijab. They are now taken out once a year when her family goes on hajj, the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca. On any other day, you will find her in her everyday go-to outfit – skinny jeans, a T-shirt and sneakers.
Her “unorthodox” clothing and short pixie haircut make people in the Muslim community look twice. The stir usually stems from the absence of a hijab neatly wrapped around her head.
“The way I dress is how I find comfort in who I am,” says 22-year-old Sumayya. “I defy every expectation that they throw at me.” She also does not wear a hijab or an abaya because she “does not think there is only one way to express Islam and the world is preoccupied with that”.
Sumayya’s aunt Tasneem Garda, 42, also does not wear a hijab. “I love my fashion and wearing the hijab is a very personal thing and right now it is just not me,” she says. “I wore it for a period of six months once, after I returned from hajj, but then I thought, ‘Who am I kidding?’”
Sumayya is known as “the blender” in her family. “My family say I can go anywhere in the world and look like I’m from there,” she says.
As the oldest granddaughter, neighbours in her suburb of Mayfair expect Sumayya to dress and behave “conservatively”, but she has her own ideas on what it means to be “a 21st-century Muslim girl”.
Sumayya, a master’s student at Wits University, is currently doing her research on Indian women in Fordsburg’s public spaces. “I am interested to know how women situate themselves in a city and get around,” she says. “I want to study that to study myself.”
Safiyyah Surtee, a lecturer in religious studies at the University of Johannesburg, says it is more common for most 21st-century women to have access to university and it is “a really big step away from one generation before theirs, like their mothers”.
“Young Muslim women are now leading modern lifestyles and have careers and access to tertiary education,” Surtee says. She notes that with the progression of time “families evolve and younger generations are very liberal and lead the lifestyles they choose”.
Sumayya’s mother, Munira Garda, 49, did not go to university due to a combination of health issues and financial constraints. After she matriculated, she worked at the family business at the Oriental Plaza in Fordsburg.
“She has always supported our decisions and interests because she was never exposed to the degree options we have,” Sumayya says. “My mother has allowed my sister and I to study whatever we wanted and sort of lives through us.”
With every generation, family life and traditions have changed and those changes are always different.
Sumayya’s great-grandparents came to South Africa in 1940. Her maternal grandfather Yusuf Garda, 75, married his cousin Tahera, 69, which was common practice at that time. Together, they raised their three daughters, Munira, Zaheda and Tasneem, in Pageview, known as Fietas by those from the area. Yusuf’s youngest daughter, Tasneem, now a mother of three daughters herself, says life then was “very different”.
“I remember playing in the streets with the children next door,” she says, recalling a sense of community she believes her daughters are not exposed to.
Salma Patel, a Fietas resident of 57 years, watched Tasneem and her siblings as children. She used to live across from the Garda family on 14th Street and says Fietas community life was “unbelievable” in the 1960s.
“There was a social glue,” she says as she walks through what is now the Fietas Museum. Patel turned two double-storey houses on 14th Street into the museum, to preserve the memories of those who were instrumental in the financial, cultural and educational development of the Fietas community.
At the entrance to the museum, a sign reads: “Towards the 1940s, the population had become predominantly ‘Indian’ and merchants turned 14th Street into a famous shopping mecca.” This all changed in 1950 when it was declared a whites-only suburb under the Group Areas legislation and all non-white families were forcibly removed by the apartheid government.
“The streets were filled with children after school,” Patel says, but when they were not in school or out playing, their mothers were expected to take care of them, while their fathers ran the family business.
Women were the main support structure in the community and whether neighbours were family or not, Patel says there was “no hesitation to care for or feed each other’s children”.
Surtee, whose grandparents had a clothing business in what is now part of the Fietas Museum, says “there was hardship in raising children, but there was the broader family and greater community to help raise them”.
“Cooking was a very big part of their existence,” Surtee adds, as “women were in the domestic sphere and had to be the ideal wife and daughter-in-law.”
The “mentality was selfish as they [the older people in the community] expected their daughters-in-law to look after them because self-interest was a big motive,” Yusuf says.
Yusuf was 25 and Tahera 19 when they married. He says families “had to keep the wealth and secrets in the family”. The tradition of marriage began changing when his daughters decided to marry as the Gardas’ three daughters “all married outside the family”. Yusuf says that there was no parental pressure from him or his wife to marry within.
Tasneem explains that her father was the youngest of eight brothers. “We had male cousins that were much older so marrying one of them was not really possible,” she says.
Although Islam prohibits the concept of “courting”, as Yusuf puts it, “boy meets girls, girl meets boy and you can’t do much about the rest.” When Tasneem met Mohamed Fiaz Rajah in school, Yusuf says he “scrutinised his [Mohamed’s] family background and it was decent”.
Tasneem and Mohamed began dating when they studied pharmacy at Wits and, at the age of 23, they married with 700 guests at their wedding. Tasneem says their marriage was their choice but they had no say as to how many guests were invited. “It was what your parents wanted,” she says, “The entire community gets invited.”
Even though traditions have changed with time, older traditions sometimes filter down, like the expectation of marriage in many Indian families.
Sumayya also feels that her mother and grandmother secretly hope she will marry her best friend, Faheem. “But we’re just friends,” she always tells them and, as expected, “they just grin back at me as if they don’t believe me.”
Some of her friends chose to get married after matric, but Sumayya says she never felt pressured to get married. “Those antiquated traditions don’t come into my everyday life,” she says. There are times when her grandmother jokes around, “but sometimes I don’t think she’s joking when she asks when am I going to find a boy?”
Sumayya explains that when a girl decides to marry, part of that decision is to “take the worry off her parents. Indian parents worry about your future as a girl – are you gonna have a good boy?” She says “it’s a thing that stems from tradition”.
Yusuf says a woman was “seen as an asset to the family” that she married into. His own mother, he says,“gained eight daughters-in-law” and they all had a “keen sense to help”. He says domestic skills were extremely important to have.
Patel views things differently. She “saw women as unpaid labour”. In the 1960s, “they cooked upstairs and when things got hectic, they would come down and assist in the shop.” This was the convention of the time and women accepted it as the community was “very patriarchal”.
Tasneem says, “I will encourage my kids to be domesticated, more so than I was because I didn’t know how to cook when I got married and I was embarrassed.”
She says her mother prefers to cook alone and, also, did not have the patience to teach her. “My mother would tell me to go study instead because I think she preferred not to have someone in her way.”
Tasneem moved in with her in-laws after she married. “I learnt to cook from my mother-in-law and she is just as patient with my girls in the kitchen,” Tasneem says.
Sumayya is also expected to know how to cook, but admits that “it doesn’t always work out. My nani [grandmother] always kicks me out the kitchen at the most crucial point because I ask too many questions.”
Tahera says “it’s not always easy” to teach her daughters and granddaughters to cook as the recipes are all in her head. “I can’t tell them quantities or measurements, and that’s what they need to cook today,” she says. “I cook from judging.”
Tahera and the family also do not judge their daughters as Sumayya does not feel pressured to fit the image of a “conventional Muslim girl”. She likes that she has “the potential to change the narrative” about the world’s view of Islamic women. “I’m just a normal girl and these are my beliefs,” she says.
Her “different interests” have always been accepted by her family. She loves writing and listening to new music, although it is haram (forbidden). “When we have family braais we put music on and my dad dances to MiCasa which is really embarrassing,” she says, “but my parents understand our generation and the things we enjoy.”
Skateboarding is her favourite activity and she describes it as the only thing she can do to “get her mind off things. It’s like my jogging I guess.” Occasionally, Sumayya skates on the uneven tar roads around her home. On more than one occasion, males driving by whistle and ask her why she is skating.
People often ask her “uncomfortable things” like why she wants to look like a boy or if she is a lesbian. “Because I am an Indian Muslim girl, they want me to be like the Indian Muslim girl next door,” she says. “There is a common preoccupation with how an Indian Muslim girl should behave and look, as if that is the most important part of her.”
She views herself as a Muslim girl, but in a greater world, and “will draw on those experiences, in relation to Islam”.
To her, faith is “believing in God and Muhammed as his messenger” and tradition is about “family, familiarity and culture. You teach generations the sense in things,” she says, and adds that Islam allows her the “freedom and choice to be a feminist”.
Surtee also considers herself an “Islamic feminist” which are “Muslim women who are arguing from within the faith for power, inclusion and equality”. She says there are still “pockets of Muslims who are stuck in the idea that Muslim women should be invisible, silent and docile,” but Islamic feminists are determined to change these perceptions.
Although young women are moving away from expressing Islam in an orthodox way, Surtee says, “The trend is to evolve with the rest of the world while also going back to scripture in the Qur’an and interpreting it in ways which are relevant to women today.”
However, Sumayya says the thought of losing her faith sometimes keeps her up at night. One day, she wants to leave Mayfair to work in The Big Apple. “If I moved there, I would have to find a base and find my people,” she says. “The core fundamentals of praying every day and educating children on their faith are the most important traditions to continue for all Islamic women.”
She and her grandfather agree on this as Yusuf says “reading the Quran every day is a must” because “it’s fundamental” to their faith, but that “you can’t impose too much on children,” and should “let them evolve and develop”.
Faith is most important to Tasneem as it teaches “values and discipline. The most important tradition is to continue with prayer and remain close to family. It’s not even an option,” she says.
Whether Sumayya finds herself in New York or some place closer to home, she says it is important for her to leave Mayfair so she can “appreciate it more”.
“Moving away doesn’t mean you’re not that community, you still represent them,” she says.
“Your life is a puzzle, you just have to find your pieces and they won’t always be in the place you call home.”