I was born Fatemeh Zahra Yarali.
Well, in Iran, middle names aren’t commonly included on a birth certificate, so Fatemeh became my official identity: Zahra, the name all my family knows me as. To this day, nothing rings sweeter in my ears than hearing my name, Zahra, said in perfect Persian (Farsi) dialect.
But I haven’t been Zahra in ages.
Upon my arrival in the States in 2006, Fatemeh became my ID. People stumbled through that name as if it was just another serial number — another sequence of random characters spaced too close for the Western mouth to articulate with ease. I did my best to brush off the inherent isolation I felt. It wasn’t anyone’s fault my name was different — harder to piece through. It wasn’t their fault my name wasn’t like everyone else’s. And yet, something about the pause they took before an attempt, or a laugh they added in to soften the blow of likely getting the answer wrong, did not sit well with me.
At school, I went by Fatemeh until the end of third grade. No one, not even my teachers, could ever quite say it right, and now and then I’d hear the taunting “Fat Emma” or “fart-emuh”.
Now, I know potty humor is all the rage amongst elementary-aged children… but by fourth grade, I had had enough!
I wanted desperately to have a name that was easy enough for everyone to say — conformity was my newest goal in life. So, after seeing the prettiest blonde-haired, blue-eyed cool girl on my favorite TV show of the time — My Babysitter’s a Vampire — I told my dad I wanted to be Erica.
And so I was.
To an extent, I still am — but we’re working on that.
Regardless, Erica, my Westernized name, sufficed me well in middle school. Looking different and darker was difficult enough: at least now I had one thing that kept me alike.
It was only once I realized how beautiful, remarkable, and revolutionary it is to claim one’s uniquities that I began liking Erica less and less. As I dove further into my passion for human rights advocacy and supporting inclusivity of all peoples, at all ages and stages of life, “Erica” no longer fit me and the person I was (and still am) becoming.
If I was to claim equal rights for marginalized groups in my advocacy efforts, it began feeling only right to lose the name that exemplified the lack of acceptance I had for myself.
So I tried something new.
This past summer, as a rising senior, I spent five weeks in the heart of Kentucky’s Appalachian country on the campus of Morehead State University for the 37th summer of Kentucky’s Governor’s Scholars Program. I decided this was the perfect opportunity to see, for the first time, how an American community would react to a name I loved and felt absolutely at comfort with — Zahra.
Now, I did have to explain my name to every new person I introduce myself to as “‘Zach’, without the ‘c’ sound, followed by -ra… like your favorite character on Friends, R*ah*ss !”
I loved every second of it.
I loved teaching new friends something about who I am within seconds of knowing them. My community of scholars, Professors, Resident Advisors, and Campus Directors greeted me with a receptivity I’ve only ever experienced in my home of Iran and with my Iranian community in the States.
This was home for five weeks. This was something entirely new and, in another way, beautifully familiar.
When it comes to the GSP, I cannot stress community enough. I felt as though I gained some 350 new members of my family this summer. People I only just met were able to master my name in my beloved Persian (Farsi) dialect. The effort they put towards perfecting the art of its articulation blew me away.
And I want everyone who has ever felt alone in a crowd to experience what I now know to my favorite feeling in the world: being at home, not in a physical location, but around people who wholeheartedly accept you for what makes you individually, phenomenally, you.
In my hometown, I haven’t always felt honest with myself. I still don’t: at least, not entirely. This was and is represented with my 4th-grade desire to change my name to appease others and my reluctance to cast aside “Erica” even now — simply to not cause a fuss over something as “trivial” as a name.
But that’s the thing.
How trivial can a name be to someone? Someone who has spent her life in America unsure of who she is because she has busied herself trying to be what others wanted her to be.
How can I continue to shrug it off when it is the reason I lost touch with my faith?
How can it be that at one point, I was thoroughly ashamed of and unhappy with my “unusual” name?
My name dignifies arguably the most important female in Islam and the daughter of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), Fatemeh Zahra. Here, Zahra is descriptive and means Shining, Blossoming and Bright.
How is it that I lost touch with this truth and with my Faith simply from a desire to conform?
It’s an internal conflict I wish on no one, and I’m grateful for what I learned this summer about the necessity of being one’s truest self.
Being Fatemeh Zahra — here, now, honestly, and truly — has restored my faith in more ways than one.
My relationship with the faith of Islam has been rekindled, and I am oh so grateful. Subhan’Allah.
My faith in America, the land of freedom and opportunity, has been restored. My faith in the idea of the Melting Pot has grown significantly in recent months. I used to believe conformity was something I would have to get used to if I planned to be accepted in this culture. However, America has a stunningly diverse populace. The United States is a physical location wherein anyone should be able to find a home community, and my experience is a testament to this.
I know I want to be Zahra from now on, not just for what felt like a five-week dream. I want to live that dream every day. I want to be a blossoming, bright girl who shines her brightest smiles at the sound of her perfectly pronounced name. Always.
A memento from my Seminar :) (Credit: Personal)
But there is still work to be done.
It is crucial to teach children in classroom settings and through daily interactions how they can practice inclusivity without consciously thinking of the action. Young people are sponges, absorbing every detail around them and developing mannerisms without considering what might and might not be kind. Diverse individuals cannot and should not be expected to conform to a community they do not inherently “fit in,” for the sole purpose of making it easier on others — at the expense of their self-acceptance.
Students become scholars in learning environments wherein they feel secure to be their truest selves. As a country, as active individuals, and as advocates in “the Free World”, we must collective promote and prioritize providing all people eager to learn with a special feeling of community and belonging in schools, year-round.
For the sake of prosperity for America’s posterity, inclusivity should be the standard, not a rarity.