I was fasting when I heard Zayn Malik and Gigi Hadid were expecting a child together. The month of Ramadan, when Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset in remembrance of God, had coincided with quarantine, and become yet another test of discipline in an already uncertain and difficult time. Ramadan is typically a month to gather with your community, but social distancing measures made that all but impossible this year, leaving us to open our fasts with our immediate families, or worse, alone in our studio apartments. But now, the internet was lighting up with a glimmer of good news: Young Hollywood’s foremost power couple of Muslim origin was about to have a baby.
Zayn Malik, star singer and former member of British boy band One Direction, was the only mainstream Muslim pop singer that millennial and Gen Z Muslims could identify with in the 2010s. Discovered as a teenager after auditioning for X-Factor, Zayn, whose father is British Pakistani, rose from his working class neighborhood in Bradford to worldwide fame. The only person of color in a band marketed to teenage girls, he transformed into a Muslim icon overnight.
But Zayn was not a poster boy for the Islamic faith. He smoked, he drank and he got tattoos—activities that brought scrutiny from conservative Muslims, who denounced his behavior as “haram,” or forbidden. That still didn’t prevent him from being stopped at airports, or from being labeled as a “terrorist” by the right-wing media. The experience was all too relatable for Muslim youth growing up in the West, who are caught between embodying a “good,” religious Muslim while simultaneously navigating the temptations to indulge in all that’s considered “haram,” and face discrimination for being brown, black and/or Muslim. Zayn, just like many of us, managed to walk this fine line while still proudly owning his identity as a British-Pakistani artist.
Zayn comes from Bradford, a city in northern England with a large population of Pakistanis, and which faced race riots in 2001. On the surface, his background appears different from his on-again-off-again girlfriend Gigi, the daughter of a Palestinian real estate developer and Dutch model-turned-reality television star, who grew up in the genteel, laid-back beach town of Santa Barbara. But Zayn and Gigi’s roots are more intertwined than one might think.
Gigi’s father, Mohamed Hadid, is a Palestinian refugee who fled his ancestral homeland during what Palestinians refer to as the “Nakba” (Arabic for “catastrophe”), the violent exodus of 700,000 Palestinians in 1948. Mohamed Hadid has shared his family’s story and photographs from 1948 on Instagram. Gigi and her younger siblings were raised Muslim, and Gigi has proclaimed herself to be a “proud” Palestinian.
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While Gigi’s heritage may not seem like a big deal, Palestinian-Americans face erasure and have even been targeted for embracing their identity. When Trump moved the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, which led to protests in which 58 Palestinians were killed, Gigi called for peace and tweeted #freepalestine.
She was not the first young celebrity to use the political hashtag. In 2014, Zayn tweeted #FreePalestine after Israel launched a military operation against Gaza that killed 1,462 civilians. Zayn had not yet left One Direction, and his tweet incurred death threats on social media; despite this, he willingly risked his teenybopper image and mass-marketed career to express solidarity with a political cause that is central not just to Arabs and Muslims, but is a source of solidarity for many progressives and people of color from across the world.
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Today, Gigi Hadid is the most visible celebrity of Palestinian descent in the world, counting millions of followers on social media. What makes Gigi and her sister Bella remarkable is that they openly acknowledge their Palestinian and Muslim roots, without hinting their lifestyle negates their identity. It’s a far cry from the identity crisis faced by Muslim supermodels in the past, such as Iman, who mentioned navigating the “oxymoron” of calling herself Muslim in the fashion industry, or Yasmeen Ghauri, who initially faced rejection from her parents for pursuing her dreams.
“Muslims are not allowed to dance. You are not really supposed to show skin, you are supposed to be covered and be modest and all these things are completely opposite of what I am doing now,” Ghauri, who is Pakistani-Canadian, said in 1994. The statement perhaps still rings true for Zayn, who told British Vogue in 2018 that he no longer identifies as Muslim.
“I believe whatever people’s religious beliefs are is between them and whoever or whatever they’re practicing. For me, I have a spiritual belief of there is a god. Do I believe in hell? No,” Zayn confessed.
Zayn’s decision to not practice Islam may not fit the purist vision of being Muslim that Western media depictions emphasize, or which many Muslims themselves have internalized over time, but it’s consistent with Muslims I know who question their faith or become agnostic. Being a young Muslim growing up in the West has never been simple, and Zayn doesn’t just give voice to our political convictions or ethnic ancestry, but also our doubts, questions, fears, and misgivings. Zayn shows us what it means to exist in between spaces, and is an illustration of the fact that a “perfect Muslim” doesn’t really exist to begin with.
After all, there are ways in which faith can affect us in the most surprising ways. Zayn and Gigi’s pregnancy news broke during Ramadan, which many Muslim fans felt wasn’t a coincidence. Since the couple had started dating in late 2015, they’d broken up before almost every other Ramadan, only to get back together by Eid, the celebration that marks the end of thirty days of fasting.
Today, one of the most famous celebrity couples in the world is Palestinian and Pakistani, British and American, and of course, of Muslim origin. Now, they’re signaling a lifelong commitment by having a child together. In the era of Trump and gated borders, Gigi and Zayn’s romance doesn’t just inspire, it gives hope to a generation that has always been on the margins, but is slowly emerging center stage.
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