Some people might argue that being a covered Muslim woman in America right now is just about the worse thing that could happen to me. With the heightened Islamaphobia and the attacks on Muslim at an all-time high, it is normal that any time I go out, I am told to be careful and watch my surroundings. Call me careless or irresponsible, but I haven’t taken heed of their warnings. Why? Because I don’t want to. In doing so, I will no longer be the carefree, fearless woman that I am. And because just like the islamaphobes don’t want the “terrorists to win”, I don’t want their ignorance to win either.
In wearing the hijab for twenty years now, I have become so comfortable in my identity that no amount of hate will make me second-guess my worth as an American. Yes, I am different. So is everyone else. To allow the fear instilled in me by my family and friends to take over my life would be counterproductive to my mission as a Muslim woman in this country. Instead of fading into the background of society, I feel more empowered to wear my hijab and venture out into the world. More than ever, we need to be visible and become the voice for Muslims, to speak out against bigotry and hate in order to educate the ignorant masses that surround us.
I know that there are many legitimate instances where Muslims have been targeted. I will not discount those. However, what bothers me lately are the Muslims who have decided to retreat into safer waters by blending into society. For example, some people have suggested that women in hijab should not make their hijab so apparent- such as wearing a hat or hoodie instead so as not to be a target. Or having men shave their beards so as not to appear menacing. To those people I say: you are a part of the problem. What we need now more than ever is to be ourselves. Changing and becoming less visibly Muslim will not change the conversation around Islam in America.
When it comes to Muslim women in hijab, another thing we need is support from our Muslim male allies. Instead of voicing your concerns for us after every terror attack, how about you voice your admiration for us being unapologetically ourselves. You know that after 9-11, my father suggested to my sister an I to take off our hijabs if we felt scared for our lives. We both looked at each other and had the same answer: never. To take it off would allow hate to win. And for me, that decision became the gateway to years of advocacy where I was invited to speak in non-Muslim communities and all around my college campus to teach people about Islam. THAT is what we need now.
Let me give you a real example. Yesterday, my sister called me and told me she finally got a job in her new city, Knoxville, Tennessee. She wears hijab, so we were worried that she would face discrimination. It was her second day on the job, and a client apparently was upset that she was working there, and he voiced his concerns to a manager. My sister overheard the strained conversation and after the client left, she asked the manager what the conversation was about. Her manager seemed hesitant to relay the information, but my sister assured her there was nothing she hadn’t heard before. So the manager told her that the client was saying that “her kind doesn’t belong here” and that she needed to “go back to where she came from.” And then the manager burst into tears.
My sister asked her why she was crying, and she said she just doesn’t like how hateful people are. My sister consoled her and told her it was okay- that most people say these things because they are uneducated. And from that incident, my sister was able to start a conversation with her manager about Muslims and hijab. She showed her a picture from her wedding and told the woman that wearing hijab on her wedding day made her feel like the most beautiful woman in the world. And that in wearing the hijab for the last 20 years, she has become so much more secure in herself and her identity. The manager was impressed by how my sister turned an awful situation into a teachable moment, and did so with grace and compassion.
It is so easy for us to get upset when someone makes a hateful remark about our hijab. It takes a very strong woman to turn a bad situation into a good one. My sister is one of the strongest women I know, and I admire her for her ability to act with grace under pressure. And now, she has the opportunity to teach her colleagues at her new job about Islam, which never would have happened if not for the reaction of that client.
So, to all my fellow Muslims out there: do not be frightened by the sensationalization of the hate you see online. Yes, we are experiencing the highest instances of Islamophobia since 9-11, but that does not mean that we cannot rise above and use this time to teach others about who we are. Do not cower in fear. Be strong and humble, and while it is smart to stay aware of these issues, do not let it diminish your identity. After all, America is the land of the free, where freedom of religion is a right. So use your voice and make yourself visible. It’s the only way we can stand united against hate.