I have a confession to make.
I really do not like to be called “Sister Ify.” There, I said it. It was only after my conversion to Islam that I began to enter the world of using the “Sister” or “Brother” honorific before the first name of other Muslims.
I would locate my culture as being primarily American, as I was born and raised in a small college town in upstate NY. Most of the color in our town was provided by the children of immigrant professors and black kids bussed in from the city to diversify the middle and high schools. However, in my house and among my relatives and the friends of my parents, the culture was distinctly Igbo Nigerian.
For the most part, in both cultures, there is no honorific or commonly used title/name for people within the same peer group. Although, Igbos love titles and frequently use them to show honor and distinction. Even if one does not have a title, they are prone to using their professional title Dr., Engineer, Esq. or they’ll just make one up. My dad is a professor so some people call him Prof, he has a Ph.D so many call him Dr. Okoye, and he has an Igbo honorific title, which roughly translates into “the one who sits astride the elephant.” Titles can also be purchased but that’s another post.
Among my siblings, if we ever call each other names like “brother” or “sister” or “lil’ sis” it’s always in a mocking and highly affected tone and manner. I know using “brother” or “sister” is more common among African Americans especially in the South, perhaps, influenced by the culture of the black church. I know a sister (this generic usage of the term is okay with me) that will also refer to her children as “brother” or “sister” as in “Sister, is your homework done, yet?” And some of my West African friends will refer to other older African women as “Sis so-and-so.” Older African men are referred as Mr. [insert first name].
For people considerably older than me, it depends on our relationship and the situation, only now more complicated by the addition of Islam and coming into contact with even more diverse cultural habits. For the African friends of my parents that I grew up with, I’ll may refer to them as Aunt or Uncle so-and-so because that’s how they were introduced to me as a child. As I got older and I learned that there may not have been any real familial relationship, I often switched to calling them Mr. or Mrs. [insert last name]. This also goes for the parents of my friends as I’ve never felt comfortable calling them by their first names. Even if they ask me to call them by their first name, I try to avoid using their name but if pressed will probably revert to Mr. or Mrs. [insert last name]. Only more recently, since I’ve officially moved to the South (Maryland), did I pick up from some African Americans, the usage of Mr. or Ms. (always Ms. never Mrs.)[insert first name] as in Ms. Pat or Mr. Al, generally only used for other older African Americans.
Now, when it comes to Muslims, it becomes a bit more complicated. For those I consider within my peer group, I see no reason to use the terms “brother” or “sister” in front of their first names. Some see it as an additional layer of modesty, I think for the most it’s simply pretentious and a symptom of the difficulty our community has with effectively coming to terms with the realities of gender interaction. Notice, that the same people offering the modesty excuse do not use the same terminology with their non-Muslim peers.
If I specifically know someone would prefer to be called “sister” or “brother” I’ll use that out of respect for them when writing or speaking to them. For older Muslims, those who I would consider to be in my parents peer group, I may refer them using the “brother” or “sister” or “aunty” or “uncle” title because I’m somewhat uncomfortable calling them by their first name. Generally, at work or school, I will not use any honorific. However, I once worked with a Liberian woman close to my grandmother’s age, so I called her Aunty [insert first name].
I feel the use of the terms “brother” or “sister” and kunyas (Abu or Umm) are simply not part of my cultural upbringing and it’s not really a cultural habit I’d like to assume. I’m Ify and I don’t mind if people, younger or older than me, call me that.
Nneka, one of my older sisters (blood relation, immediate family) spent some time working as a travel nurse in Dallas, Texas and found the use of titles or lack thereof, to be exceedingly patronizing. I remember her telling me that she did not like how the physicians referred to the nurses by their first names but then the nurses deferentially referred to the physicians as Dr. so and so. Nneka, of course, called the doctors by their first names just as they called her by her first name even after some nurses tried to “correct” her.
A couple of years ago, I stayed with a desi family in NYC for two weekends during an AlMaghrib class and they were accustomed to using the terms bhai, baji, apa (Urdu words for your siblings). The youngest daughter was maybe 2 or 3 years old and only spoke Urdu so her sisters (my peers) explained to her who I was and told her to call me apa or apaji or something like that. And she was kind of shy but when I returned back to Maryland, my friends told me that their little sister had asked them the following Monday, “Are you going to school with apa (referring to me) today,” which I thought was pretty sweet that she remembered me using the words in Urdu.
Third post in the Post a Week 2011 series, now I’m all caught up and back on schedule.
From the Storehouse: