What defines true independent thought? My history professor provided a cursory glance of the meaning of independent thought, and my intrigue followed me long after I had left the classroom. Before my professor remarked on this subject, I would have asserted that I am undeniably an independent thinker, which I can support not just by assertion (which holds no weight unless supported by action) but also by a distinguished character in a land of assimilationist culture.
In previous works, I asserted that I am not where I come from, which is to say that I do not identify with my origins, familial or cultural. It is a complex identity that coalesces diverse cultural identities with religious thought. It is quite simple for me to tell you that I am a Muslim-American female who grew up in Northern Virginia. But this title does not do justice in conveying my effort to reflect independent thought through various realms, such as creativity and self-expression.
When I was 14-years-old, thorough research on the hijab led me to making the decision to overtly represent my faith through dress. This mode of self-expression required that I learn how to not only build an identity of who I was as an American-Muslim but to also surround myself with those with whom I identified. But a startling aspect of this transformation were the questions I received, the most memorable of them being the following: “Why do you wear the hijab but your (female) family members don’t?”
Allow me to digress.
As I was growing up, I was very much an overthinker. But I didn’t understand all of the ill-informed suggestions that this question implied. I didn’t have the time to tailor my response to those who were either unwilling to consider my perspective or ignorant of major world religions.
My response stripped the issue of all of its wondrous complexity. “I chose to wear it, and my sisters didn’t. It’s a personal choice.”
To my dear, 14-year-old self. Indeed it is a personal choice. But allow me to say now the words I could not articulate when I was younger. I choose to wear the the hijab as a way to build an identity as a Muslim female. I choose to wear it as a representation of my modesty (of character and dress). Your question about why my family members and I don’t share the same practices implies that we don’t all make the same personal decisions.
Perhaps the reason why it was difficult for me to be at peace with the implications of this question was because, in most families, there exists a unity. That is to suggest unity of speech, cultural practices, religious thought, and more. However, this aspect does not exist in all familial structures, as I have had flexibility in determining my own modes of self-expression.
Allow me to reintroduce myself. I am Naima. I am a Muslim-American female. I am an artist, a writer, a blogger. I am a student attending a school in Northern Virginia. And I am not where I am come from. But I am from the diverse groups of people that I have worked with and befriended throughout my lifetime. I am from cross-country practices ending at 6pm on weekdays, from huddled masses of distance runners, from the starting gun… to the very finish line. I am from the tears of joy that spill over my eyelids as self-expression ignites a fire of creativity in my lungs, as I dance unabashedly in my local yoga studio.
If it is any fact that I can simplify, it is that I cannot streamline myself into a single, confined identification. A check box will not do justice in conveying this individuality of thought, of character, of dress…
Can I define myself as an independent thinker, regardless of age?
Can I strip my thoughts from prejudice and external influence and think objectively, despite my demographics?
Can I consider myriad perspectives and use them to shape and re-shape my beliefs?
And if we may redirect our focus to the main question: what does it mean to be a true independent thinker? We cannot pluck ourselves from the earth, and thus, confidently assert that we are not influenced by politics, economics, or other external factors. Rather, we should make a habit of weighing diverse perspectives in order to achieve mental flexibility. We must use our minds as resources in guiding our choices in regards to our modes of self-expression. Only then do we achieve true independence of thought.