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  • Writer's pictureToyin Zuleiha

The Answer I Had Been Searching For

“Fear binds whatever it holds.” - Unknown

Fear was taught to me as a way to prevent me from going astray. It dawned on me that most of my decisions in life are driven by fear and I no longer wanted fear to influence me. First I had to strip myself of the primary source of my fear — religion. My life was guided by the fear of punishment, the fear of going to hell when I misstep, and the fear of the consequences of my actions that make me second guess every decision. This taught me that mistakes are not seen as an opportunity to learn but as a life sentence. I navigated the world being afraid to make mistakes.

Religion was ingrained in me from a very young age. I can’t remember when I started learning the Qur’an, but it was always a part of me. My dad registered me in a Muslim primary school to ensure that the values were instilled in me. Maybe he’d always known — call it a hunch — that I might deviate.

Sunday evenings were a delight because I loved attending this Islamic youth forum, which was an offshoot of the Islamic community we attended as a family. The forum was held at one of the community’s patron’s big houses. The whole building was dedicated to that. Sunday evenings were filled with learning about the deen, Islamic teachings, etiquette, and stories from the Qur’an. The rooms were air-conditioned, the curtains were elegant and the teachings were interesting. I particularly liked our teachers, three young sisters, fair-skinned, well-manicured in their expensive silk hijabs and abayas. Their image was different from the image of Islam I saw around me of uneducated people. I always looked forward to that because it was an opportunity to hang out with my friends, learn cool stuff in a fun manner and eat assorted cookies.

Thursday and Friday evenings were story time with my Mualim. He would tell me and my friend Faatihat stories of the prophets in the Qur'an. It was an open discussion that always filled me with delight. My dad would always go to the neighborhood mosque to pray in the evenings. On one of those faithful evenings, he came back declaring that we had to start wearing scarves whenever we go out.

“It is prohibited to go out without your head covered,” he said.

This was my first brush with discomfort. Wearing scarves wasn’t in tandem with my budding sense of fashion. I grew up in a suburban elite neighborhood that didn’t have a lot of Muslim families and I had always felt some form of hostility from people about being Muslim. Questions like “Why are you covering your hair?” or comments like "You don’t look like a Muslim" made me uncomfortable. I struggled with my dad’s declaration. I hated the attention wearing a hijab gave me at the time and the sense of being othered. I just wanted to be normal and move around unnoticed.

Toyin Zuleiha

My dad had enrolled me in a holiday French class at Alliance Francaise. On our way back one afternoon, as we walked into our close, passing through a shortcut of a compound that had about three buildings fenced away from a canal, my childhood friend and I were discussing how we would dress when we grow up. I remember saying to her that I won’t be wearing a hijab. Even though I did it then because wearing the hijab was an instruction I had to follow, I knew it wasn’t something I identified with.

I enjoyed some parts of practicing Islam, regarded some with shame, and questioned others. The questions haven't stopped as an adult. In fact, they’ve become more existential. The world is so vast and many people aren’t simply Muslims or Christians as was common in my community growing up. They all can’t possibly be going to Hell. Why do we have to be punished? Why are people who worship differently from us treated with so much disdain? Why are we all here?

When I was going to university, my dad advised that I join the Muslim community and would question the fact that I had non-Muslim friends. I found the idea of relating with people simply based on their religion arbitrary. I see the humanity in people first and I want to move in the world based on that. I believe my purpose is to unify humanity through the content I create and how I live my life.

When I graduated from university, I got a job at a local television station as a presenter and I was afraid of being in front of a camera. I knew deep down that I didn’t want to cover my hair but feared what friends and family would think. So I was comfortable being an entertainment news producer and voice-over artist. I was the best at the time and I wanted to present, but fear held me spellbound from going after my desires.

"Each of us is a God. Each of us knows all. We need only open our minds to hear our own wisdom.”- Buddha

I understood that I needed to rid myself of the guilt; not because I wanted freedom of choice, but because I wanted to take action and make life decisions from a place of positivity — not fear. I was tired of swimming against the tide and I wanted the struggle to stop. I wanted to float. There are thousands of spiritual practices all over the world. Someone with a higher consciousness espoused what worked for them and many people followed them, so why can’t I decide the set of practices that work for me?

In 2018, in my tiny one-bedroom apartment, at the age of 27, right in the middle of the twenties crisis, I was still very broke, confused, and dissatisfied. I thought it couldn’t get any worse. God would not be angry at me for questioning and finally owning my nagging thoughts. So I decided that I would no longer be practicing religion. However, I kept my mind open to more spiritual experiences that could enrich me. As a Nigerian woman, I am not allowed that level of autonomy. Decisions of that caliber had to be sanctioned by one’s parents, specifically one’s father, or by one’s husband. This custom has led to ostracization and banishment in the past, but I knew I had to own my decision. Even now, my father can’t understand this choice and he continues preaching to me that one day, I may be punished for my transgressions.

Despite my father’s concerns, there lies a deep connection between my spirituality and my career. I believe our professional success can be connected to our life’s purpose. It often transcends monetary value and financial stability. If at the end of the day, I can heave a sigh of relief that I did what my soul truly craves, then I feel that I am achieving my life’s purpose. When I do, I can influence other people as a part of the singular consciousness that is the universe.

I always knew I was destined for more but I was stuck at a mind numbing-job for such a long time. The fact that I knew it was time to change roles, but the right opportunity wasn’t coming along, sat at my bosom and chipped away at my self-confidence. Choosing my own path spiritually influenced my self-esteem and self-belief. It influenced how I move in my career and daily life with more confidence and trust.

Toyin Zuleiha

For so many years, I struggled with putting myself out there on the Internet even though I was a radio host. I just couldn’t figure out what I should be putting out there or what I should be saying. Going on this spiritual journey finally gave me the answers I have been seeking and that assurance has driven my journey for the past two years. I write on Medium where I put my thoughts out to the world and it has become easier. I am a film producer and content creator, creating digital products to help people put themselves out there to fulfill their purpose. I was recently selected as a Golden Globe voter.

I am practicing daily meditation and learning to understand myself and my mind because that is where my power lies. The more powerful and confident I feel, the better my decisions. I look forward to becoming a better and higher version of myself without pressure and guilt.

Edited by: Yumna Elhdari, Maia McDonald, Ava Emilione

Photo Cover Credit: Toyin Zuleiha

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