I am a proud Muslim woman born in Italy to a family of Moroccan heritage. Growing up, I was bigger than most of the girls my age, and I was the only kid in my school wearing a traditional headscarf, a hijab. Kids kicked me, called me fat, and tried to take off my hijab. I hated myself so much that I self-sabotaged in school, and I had to repeat a grade because I did so poorly.
Doing a grade over was a reality check. I had to change. I knew all the teachers, and the good snacks, so I felt like maybe I had knowledge to offer the new kids coming into the school. With this advantage, I decided to fake being confident, and that’s when singing took off for me as I won a prestigious talent show out of many contestants, and had my name in the newspaper! After that, it seemed like everyone wanted to be my friend. When I faked being confident everything changed.
I’ve loved to sing since I was a little kid, but it always seemed to be at odds with my faith and my family, especially with my father. My dad was an imam (a prayer leader) at my family’s local mosque, and I worried my singing would ruin his reputation, so I hid it from him. The message I had internalized was that doing music was sinful.
Yet, I was compelled to enter this regional talent show. I thought I would try it and nothing would happen—after all, so many other kids had signed up—so I didn’t tell my parents. Much to my surprise, I made it to the semi-finals. I asked my mom to come, and I told her I was acting. Yet, there I was singing in front of 400 people and 12 judges, including one who was my doctor. In the end, I won the entire competition, but I didn’t know it because they mispronounced my name! It didn’t hit me until my mom was screaming because she realized it, but I still didn’t tell my dad. He didn’t find out until the results were published in the local newspaper.
Then, I had a lot of explaining to do. My mom is one of my best friends, but my father and I are similar in that we don’t like being told “no.” I love my whole family and I wouldn’t feel comfortable doing something where we weren’t on good terms. So, I had to show them that I could be true to my upbringing while also being true to my love of music.
The Arabic translation of my name is “faith,” and I remind myself of that often because I’ve always believed in Allah. To find peace between my faith, my family, and my singing, I went on a self-discovery journey. I realized there is a huge difference between culture and religion. I started to research the religion and would see things represented differently in the Quran than in culture. I soon realized that if I dressed modestly, wore my hijab, didn’t use bad words, sang about things that were uplifting, and didn’t smoke or drink, I wouldn’t be going against my faith or my family. I explained these things to my parents, and now they understand and want the best for me.
Being a proud Muslim woman in a pop culture world breaks boundaries and challenges misconceptions. There are many wrong associations with Muslim people based on the media. Some people have said to me: “Oh, I didn’t think you would help me because I am gay.” My religion does not teach me to hate anyone, and I don’t feel oppressed as a woman. I have a calmness and peacefulness in my heart, and I hope I can open minds to this, and challenge how people view my people. I also hope I can show other Muslim women or people who are under-represented in culture that they can pursue their dreams.
I never thought I could pursue music as a career. I was probably too scared to admit it because I thought my culture would want me to be a doctor or a lawyer. Also, where I lived in Italy didn’t offer many music career opportunities. For years now, though, I have been living in London, and things have really clicked for me here. After I started posting funny videos of me singing into mops while on my waitressing shift at Nando’s, I earned a lot of exposure. I still work at the restaurant, but through those videos I signed with a great management company, and now have a whole team around me. It feels like a dream to me. I always joke to myself that I am a signed singer living this double life, but I am happy to say I am no longer living a double life, hiding my singing from my family.
Imen Siar is a London based singer/songwriter whose new single “Glitter and Gold,” a powerful anthem to joy and self-empowerment, is out now. Check it out here.