Delara Youssefian shares her experience of learning to come to terms with and fully appreciate the religion she was bought up in. For TWSS Issue #16 ‘Crossing the Border’.
Growing up in a religious family: I wouldn’t exactly call my experience ‘easy’. I remember constant complaints to friends at school – ‘as if growing up in this day and age isn’t difficult enough, I’ve got to deal with religious rules as well as crazy peer pressure to ditch those rules and be a ‘normal teenager’’. I remember resenting my religion and often thinking of it as the root of many of my problems. I remember feeling like I was never going to have the same bonds as my other friends had with each other – bonds over their favourite alcoholic drink, making plans to smoke weed at each other’s houses, their conversations about sex and boyfriends, and their ideal first times. If I had a penny for every time I wondered and dreamed about a life without the ‘impediment’ of religion, let’s just say I wouldn’t currently be drowning in my overdraft.
I grew up in a family who, for generations, has been part of the Bahá’i Faith. I wouldn’t be surprised if you just frowned at the page in confusion, or went to Google ‘Bahá’i Faith’, because that’s often the reaction I get. Despite there being around six million Bahá’is across the world, most people I come across haven’t heard of it. This was probably another reason why as a kid I was never too keen on my religion because like most other kids, anything that made me feel slightly different to the people around me was something I wanted to quickly eradicate. From probably around the age of five or six, I started going to Sunday School with some other Bahá’i friends where we learnt the basic principles and history of the Faith, endlessly listing and singing about virtues such as love, kindness, truthfulness, patience and so on. From that age onwards, I was regularly told about the importance of being steadfast to the Faith and abiding by its laws, all the while being tentatively reassured by my Sunday school teachers and my family that I still had the right to choose whether or not I wanted to be a Bahá’i.
I have to take a lot of the responsibility for never feeling connected to my religion as I was growing up. I spent a lot of my time focusing on the ‘hindrances’ it had on my life – such as not being allowed to drink alcohol, do drugs, or have sex before marriage – instead of having an open mind to Faith’s teachings. Instead of reading some of the religious writings or talking to friends or family about it, I spent a lot of my early teenage years Googling things like ‘what will happen to me if I defy my religious laws’ or ‘stories from people who have left their religion’, to try and calm the thoughts screaming inside my head to just push this religion to the side and effectively ignore its existence while I freely lived my life.
But I felt so guilty about all these feelings. Leaving the Faith would mean disappointing my family – who I love and respect more than anything or anyone – and the thought of doing that kept me awake in tears for countless nights during my teens. I remember once crying to my mum, pleading for help and asking her why I didn’t feel connected to our religion in the way I should have been. My relationship with religion has undeniably been rocky and testing.
When I was 18, I went to a 10-day Bahá’i course in summer just before starting university, and at the risk of sounding extremely cliché; those 10 days changed my life (definitely cliché). In a class of about 30 friends, we drew on topics that are often prevalent at university, such as participating in social discourses, and how we could use our degrees to contribute to the betterment of society. The best way to describe the way I felt after the course is as if I’d been looking out onto an amazing landscape my entire life, but there had always been a dark veil over my eyes stopping me from seeing the full view – and this course completely lifted that veil. All the laws I’d been so concerned about made so much sense to me after talking about them with friends, and I finally understood why we don’t drink alcohol or have pre-marital sex after reading the real reasons behind them, other than merely seeing them as rules set by my parents without any clear explanation. The reasons were so clear to me that I started to question why I’d struggled with them so much for the past few years.
The course opened my eyes to the principles of the Faith that I’d completely missed because of my lack of desire to read the Bahá’i writings – principles of the oneness of humanity, worldwide unity, the elimination of prejudice, the equality of men and women, the harmony of science and religion. There was one point during the course where we were talking about how human nature is partly spiritual and partly materialistic, and the need to balance both in society, and how often when people are struggling to ‘find themselves’ or feel as if there’s something missing in their lives, spirituality is usually the thing that’s missing. I think I went silent for a good half an hour after that (a huge amount of time for me) because I was coming to the huge realisation that the Bahá’i Faith, despite being present in my life since birth, was exactly what I had been looking for for so many years. I had been looking for an outlet to exercise and express my immense passion for unity, gender equality, the eradication of prejudice, and it had been right in front of my eyes.
There’s a reason why the Faith avidly promotes independent investigation of the writings, and I fully understand why now. Blindly accepting the religion presented to me by my parents clearly wasn’t the best way to go. Reading around it and finding love and acceptance for my religion, for myself, was a real moment and milestone, and the Faith is now something I hold extremely close to me. Now whenever someone asks me about my religion, instead of being slightly embarrassed and shy, I proudly and openly tell them every beautiful aspect of the Bahá’i Faith, even the rules that are pretty much the antithesis of university culture. The religion I’ve had an admittedly turbulent relationship with, I now consider to be the biggest and most cherished part of my identity.
Illustration by Delara Youssefian.