If you had told me two years ago that I was to be an environmentalist* and fight for the planet, I would be disappointed. I would have said, “There are much more important things to advocate for. People around the world are being discriminated against because of the color of their skin, their religious beliefs, who they love, their gender and much more. It’s important to protect the Earth but I need to focus my time on advocating for marginalized communities.” I would have said this because before, I was concentrated only on equality and never thought of how the two topics intersected with one another: climate change and social justice.
My environmental education before college consisted of the three R’s (reduce, reuse, recycle), the water cycle in three steps (condensation, precipitation, and evaporation) and an AP Environmental Science which focused on pollution and food chains. I never once pondered how my science classes connected to my passion for social justice, and I simply put the two in separate boxes. Outside of class, I spent my time organizing food drives, protests, collaborations amongst different peoples, but not once did I think climate change could be connected to it all. My parents never spoke of the importance of conservation or the environment, except when it came to dinner time and I didn’t want to finish my food. The typical saying, “Don’t waste your food, people around the world are starving,” would be the only time my parents subtly mentioned food injustice, but again there was no connection to climate justice.
My entire childhood I lived in a typical southern suburban neighborhood where the closest shopping complex was a five-minute drive away. I rarely spent time in a forest, on a trail, in the ocean, in places that would be defined as nature; those places were at least a two-hour drive away. I wasn’t exposed nor encouraged to enjoy the outdoors because my life revolved around the question, “Will this put me in harm’s way?” See, I am an Indian Muslim woman who chooses to wear a hijab. Too many times I have been merely outside on a walk, or in a classroom, or scrolling through social media, and I have been threatened, shouted at or grabbed at. No wonder my parents did not want me to spend much time away from them and outside.
I did not truly connect the two, social justice and climate change until I attended a Fridays for Future protest during my senior year in high school. It was there, I learned of the term “climate justice”* and how it was so very connected to social justice. It was there, I saw a BIPOC* woman talk about climate change and how it was her job to speak up and work toward systemic change. She spoke of environmental racism, gentrification, economic injustice and how it was all related to climate change. Previously, I had not once seen a BIPOC individual whose ideals aligned with those of an environmentalist. I was surprised, refreshed, and suddenly felt welcomed. At this moment, I was interested in the idea of becoming an environmentalist. For me, the reason was due to the belief that environmentalism is intersectional*, all-encompassing of social justice movements. It was due to the belief that a radical* approach to environmentalism meant grasping the issues at their roots and finding solutions. It was due to the belief that to be an environmentalist you didn’t need the pre-requisites of being white, or a male, or a vegan, it meant that you could be an Indian Muslim woman who wears a hijab.
However, even now, two years later, if you were to tell me that I am an environmentalist, I would be proud but still conflicted. I still have doubts and questions because this climate movement still has much work to do to become inclusive of all stories, backgrounds and experiences. I often question who I am, as this is imperative in developing a personal relationship to environmentalism. The words of Beverly David Tatum echo in my head: “The answer depends in large part on who the world around me says I am.” My parents have fit the stereotypical Indian expectation by putting constant pressure on me to lead a STEM-focused career that pays well. There is continuous pressure from outsiders to be the perfect example of a Muslim, as I wear a piece of fabric around my head; but even then, they believe I am oppressed because of it though it was my choice. Discovering who I am is a struggle for me to answer, as I have barely begun to answer it without others’ opinions. An environmentalist is not the answer others are looking for, as it does not match their expectation, that one was forced onto them due to colonist values. I am supposed to be a submissive housewife stuck in an abusive relationship, but I’m not and that confuses them.
Society and climate change, that relationship is one I embody when it comes to exploring who I am. My identity is reflective of the societies I am a part of and my beliefs about climate change connect my identity to rising sea levels, droughts, extreme weather and the science of it all. My ancestors have been oppressed by colonizers: our farms destroyed, our gardens burned, our practices bred out, events that all have to do with the environment; its resources, temperatures, and weather that continue to change and are now displacing my people. I am infuriated and feel powerless when I think of my people who have continuously struggled and received the worst end of colonizers’ actions. Yes, many of my identities are oppressed, but I am privileged to be educated, literate, and heterosexual. My identities make me who I am and so do my experiences despite how horrid they may be. This environmental movement is not normalized as being intersectional or radical or one with a climate justice priority. To this day, I still question, “Who exactly is an environmentalist?” To this day, can I only think of one other Desi* Muslim woman who wears a hijab and claims to be an environmentalist. My Environmental Story is still evolving as I continue to learn how I fit in the environmental movement and how I can work on making it normal for Desi Muslim women who wear a hijab to be apparent in the environmental movement.
Environmentalist = is traditionally defined as an individual who advocates for the protection of the environment. How do you define this term? How can we make this definition more inclusive?
Climate Justice = a term used to approach climate change and environmentalism as an ethical and political issue instead of one that is only physical. This means the inclusion of human rights, equality and historical injustice.
BIPOC = Black, Indigenous, and other Peoples Of Color. This acronym is used to highlight the historic oppression of marginalized communities.
Intersectional = a framework conceptualized and coined by Kimberle Williams Crenshaw that allows for the relationship between different aspects of a person’s different identities to create different modes of discrimination and privilege.
Radical = is traditionally thought of as extreme; however, it means “originating from the root.”
Desi = a people and their culture originating from India, Pakistan or Bangladesh
The Daily Campus’ Opinion weekly column, My Environmental Story, is a place where the discussion of one’s journey as an environmentalist changes and transforms as one learns more about the world around them. This series will highlight individuals and their honest reflections and introspections. The goal of this blog is to emphasize how every individual has a unique environmental story reflective of their different backgrounds and experiences. There will be an emphasis on people of color and their stories due to the historic and prevalent disproportionate discrimination against marginalized community members being environmentalists. Any opinions expressed in these articles are those of the author and not the opinion of The Daily Campus nor the University of Connecticut.