Celebrating living your authentic life with Mateen Fakir.
Mateen Fakir has always known he was meant to be male. “If you go back to my childhood pictures, I mostly wore boys’ clothing, I had short hair, I was interested in cars, superheroes and sports. I had no interest in playing dress-up or experimenting with make-up.” But still, he struggled to express his true feelings, acutely aware of the pressure to be a good Muslim girl. “I didn't know how to [raise the subject with my parents] and I didn't want to hurt their feelings or make them question themselves or their parenting.”
Instead, he was called a tomboy and reached his lowest point in high school. “I was bullied and an outcast, which led to being depressed. I was never part of any popular group and only had one friend, who thankfully is still my friend to this day. I was called lesbian because I never had a boyfriend. I tried wearing make-up and dresses. I had long hair and I tried hard to fit in. I was getting attention from boys, which just felt wrong to me because it wasn't what I wanted.” He recalls his matric dance, a night of memories that brings a sense of sadness that he never got to wear his first suit or feel like a gentleman. Instead, he remembers wearing a dress and make-up and feeling suffocated while he tried to do what was expected to make others happy.
Having been bullied in school for being different, he says it is important to teach children that no two people are the same and that differences should be celebrated, not shunned. “I've got an older sister who's got special needs and my parents instilled in me that everyone is different. You don't know what someone else is going through. Be kind because at the end of the day, someone else can be making fun of you because they think you're different to them, and you can be doing the same thing to them. Try and understand everyone and if you don't understand something, don't make fun of it or make a mockery of it. It’s not fair to anyone.” Rather, he says, ask questions and take the time to listen and understand.
“It is important to teach children that no two people are the same and that differences should be celebrated, not shunned.”
Mateen reached a turning point when he was 20. “I liked a girl a lot, so I asked her to be my girlfriend.” Today that girl is Mateen’s fiancé and she was the first person to recognise that he was transgender. It was her unconditional love, support and encouragement that allowed him to open up to his parents about his truth. “That was the first day in my life where I felt I was being my own person and taking responsibility for my life. I felt like I could finally breathe.” He was blessed, he adds, to have the support of his parents, sister and loved ones as he embarked on his journey to becoming Mateen.
“That was the first day in my life where I felt I was being my own person and taking responsibility for my life. I felt like I could finally breathe.”
It wasn’t an easy journey, but it was one he wouldn’t change. “My journey to finding myself was difficult, but the lessons which I learned from the journey were priceless. For that reason I would walk that path again.”
He learned about sacrifice and trusting the timing of life: “I first came out to my parents when I was 12 years old and they told me that they think I'm still a bit young. If I look back at it now, I think that was the right answer then, because it was all about timing. If I had started gender reassignment at 12 years old, I wouldn't have met my fiancé or made the friends that I have along the way. I think an important thing is to just let the universe do its thing and let time tell.”
He also learned how important it is to trust what you know is right in your heart. “If you strongly believe in something and in your heart feel it is the right thing, stick to it. People will only back you if you show that you truly believe in it.” Having the support of his family taught him just how important family is. “The bond I have with my parents and my sister is strong. If you are honest with yourself and the people you love, they will take time to learn more about you and appreciate that you spoke to them.”
“If you strongly believe in something and in your heart feel it is the right thing, stick to it.”
Today, Mateen has the quiet confidence of someone who is comfortable in who he is and is living life authentically. For the past two and a bit years, he’s worked at Sasfin as a service and support consultant while he studies towards his BCom in strategic management. Many of his colleagues knew him before he transitioned and his biggest fear was his transition negatively impacting his job. That never happened. “I'm lucky and fortunate that everyone treated me the same because they knew I was the same person, I was just happier. I got support from everyone.”
“Everyone treated me the same because they knew I was the same person, I was just happier.”
It’s those people he works with daily that he counts as his favourite thing about working at Sasfin. “We all gel together well and working with them has been a pleasure.” In addition, he adds, the diversity and inclusion that he feels at work makes a big difference. It’s not merely about employing a diverse group of people, Mateen explains, “diversity and inclusion is respecting and valuing the individual differences in people, be it their race, religion, disability or sexual orientation. Diversity promotes an atmosphere where differences can be explored and understood. It goes beyond tolerance of who a person is, it's getting to understand them and to know them.”
“Diversity promotes an atmosphere where differences can be explored and understood. It goes beyond tolerance of who a person is, it's getting to understand them and to know them.”
While he’s still young, only 23, Mateen has already experienced a shift in diversity and inclusion in the workplace. The bathrooms in the new Sasfin building include a gender-neutral bathroom, he says, and people have become more open to having conversations, speaking to people about who they are and doing their homework.
When it comes to educating people, especially around gender norms and identity, Mateen thinks the responsibility lies with both people. “For someone to educate people, it can come across as a bit harsh to say this is how it is or should be. I think the best way to do it is to just say this is who I am and this is what I've done and allow the other person to absorb that knowledge and do their own research. If people care enough to understand what you are saying to them, they will do their own research in their own time.”
As someone who changed his pronouns, he’s cognisant of the fact that it takes time for people to adjust and that making mistakes is human and people are allowed time to learn. “When I came out, I said these are my pronouns, but I don't expect you to adjust instantly. My mom still has hiccups sometimes, and I don't get upset because everyone's still learning. Personally, I'm also still getting used to the feeling of people calling me him or he. It just takes time. Giving people the space and time to make those mistakes with the pronouns is okay, because, at the end of the day, it's a completely different thing and everyone has to get used to it.”
“Giving people the space and time to make those mistakes with the pronouns is okay, because, at the end of the day, it's a completely different thing and everyone has to get used to it.”
When it comes to giving advice to those in a similar position to what he was in 10 years ago, Mateen says it would be to let fear go and be who you know you are. “It takes time to understand yourself, but if you know in your heart who you are, let go of the fear and embrace that.
“There will always be people who judge you and who will not take the time to understand you, but those who care about you will make the effort to understand and support you. Being your authentic self will help you have the meaningful and caring relationships that you need. Believe in yourself and in the kindness of others, the rest will follow.”
He’s been lucky to have a strong support network of people who have made the effort to understand and support him, a network that includes strong women. His mother, grandmother, sister and fiancé have all shaped him and given him important life lessons. “From my mum, I've learned that only you can shape your dreams and work hard enough for them that they become a reality. She taught me that you need to back yourself the whole way. From my sister, I've learned that when you have a choice of being right or being kind, it's always better to choose to be kind. From my fiancé, I've learned not to take myself so seriously and to enjoy life and make time for the things that I enjoy doing. And from my late grandmother, I've learned about sacrifice, loving unconditionally and the importance of family.”
“When you have a choice of being right or being kind, it's always better to choose to be kind.”
Mateen describes himself as an old soul, but that wisdom and grounding comes from a journey that demanded self-reflection and the determination and confidence to go against who you are told you are and become who you truly are. It’s a product of becoming Mateen, and he’s only getting started.