NYC254 cover image See all stories from issue #254, November/December 2016

What I Learned by Wearing the Hijab
Aniqa Tasnim

I was about four blocks from my house when I turned back to make sure no one was looking. Then I quickly pulled off my hijab. I took a deep breath and looked up into the blue summer sky. I felt free.

I had been wearing the hijab (a scarf or veil that covers your hair and shoulders, but not your face) for about three years; I started when I was 12. That is the age when it is customary for Muslim women to adopt a more modest dress code and wearing the hijab is part of that. My parents expected it of me.

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However, I had another reason for wanting to wear it: I thought being more observant would help alleviate some of the guilt I had been carrying around. My best friend had recently killed himself, and I thought I was partly to blame. He was gay and I had convinced him to come out to his parents. I thought they’d be accepting, but they kicked him out of the house.

My parents, who knew about my friend and my guilt surrounding him, said that wearing the hijab would help me feel better. They warned me about the bigotry I might encounter while wearing the hijab, but they encouraged me not to be fearful. I listened to them.

Strangers Called Me ‘Terrorist’

My life changed drastically when I started wearing the hijab. Both friends and strangers harassed me with Islamaphobic slurs and tried to demonize my religion and me. They called me “towel-head,” “terrorist,” “bomber,” and “Osama Bin Laden,” and yelled at me to “go back to my country.” At first, my response was to insult the person back, but that left me feeling terrible and regretful. I needed to figure out a better way to defend myself against these bigots; I began to educate myself about Islam so I could argue intelligently.

About a month later, I was walking to my cousin’s house when I heard someone shout, “Hey you, you terrorist.”

I turned around and was met by a man with a horrid smile that twisted up the deepest part of my stomach. “Me?” I asked.

“You look like an idiot. Why are you smiling? Get out of my country!” the man shouted.

As American As You

When I took a closer look at the old man my heart softened. His pale skin was stained with dirt and grime. His long brown hair and beard looked as if they hadn’t been washed or combed in weeks. His clothes were torn and his fingers were curled around a used coffee cup filled with change. I decided to flash him another smile.

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“I’m sorry, sir, but I was born in this country. I am as American as you are. And by the way, I’m smiling because I’m happy, and I refuse to let you take that away from me. I am not a terrorist and I hope you do not call anyone else a terrorist in the future, because making assumptions about people can be harmful. I’m sure you wouldn’t want anyone to assume that you are homeless or lazy. Please do not do to me what you wouldn’t want done to you,” I responded.

I took $10 out of my bag and put it in his cup. Before he could respond, I turned around and walked away.

Rather than just yelling back at this man, I had used what I learned in the Quran to help me express my opinions in a more confident and healthy way. It encourages generosity and states that Muslims should help the less fortunate if they can. In fact, one of the five pillars of Islam include giving zakat, which means giving a certain amount of your annual income to the needy.

Loving My Inner Self More

Wearing the hijab and clothing that covered all of my body except for my hands and face also helped me appreciate my inner self more, by allowing me to keep my sexuality more private. My long black hair and my body weren’t what people noticed about me first. I was able to reject sexualization and objectification. Because of this, I learned to love myself more. I fell in love with my brains, my dreams, my goals, and my hope. I learned to love my kindness, my generosity, and my compassion.

Wearing the hijab improved my life in another unexpected way. After losing some friends who ultimately turned out to be Islamaphobic, I was forced to meet new people who were open-minded and accepting. I even met one of my best friends while wearing the hijab.

An About Face

But then, when I was about 15, I stopped wanting to wear the hijab. The more I learned about Islam, the more questions I had. For instance, why can’t you have sex before marriage? Why is suicide a sin? Why is gay marriage forbidden? What does Islam have to say about people who are transgender or don’t identify as male or female?

Sometimes, I want to wear revealing clothes or text boys. I want to wear a bikini in the summer to show off the body I work hard for. I feel like I should be able to do all that and still believe in Allah.

And finally, time helped me forgive myself and better accept my friend’s death. I talked to his parents, and my friends supported me through my grief, which helped.

I’m not ready to tell my parents I’ve given up the hijab, so I still wear it when I’m at home. But I realized that I’m a good person whether I’m religious or not.

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