Holding my jacket in my arms and trying not to knock over anything, I ran. I ran faster than ever before, I reached the front of the store, gasping for air, and looked frantically for an employee. When I finally found one I was out of breath and could barely plead, “I … need … a … manager…”
My peaceful mother, who barely spoke English was about to kick some ass in Marshalls. I didn’t know how a manager could help, but at the age of 9 that’s the best I could do.
A middle-aged woman with dark hair who seemed to be Latina, and her two daughters, were making racist remarks about my mom and aunt’s hijab. She then began to insult Islam. My mother understands English, but at the time couldn’t speak it fluently. My mother understood what was being said and she went over to the woman and politely asked her to stop.
The lady’s oldest daughter looked at my mother and laughed. Never in my life have I ever wanted to physically assault a person more. I didn’t know why I wanted to do it, but it felt like the right thing to do.
Instead, I ran for the manager.
Not a single person tried to stand up for my mother; they acted like it wasn’t happening. They continued to walk around us, shopping and ignoring the scene. Since I wasn’t wearing a hijab yet (I was too young) I didn’t understand why my mom was so infuriated by things this stranger was saying. I didn’t understand why anyone would care enough to say something. To me a hijab was normal (the hijab, or headscarf, is a symbol of modesty and dignity).
I was born in America in a community that was filled with hijabs, mosques, Korans, and things related to Islam. I had yet to experience any type of backlash that was carried out due to the clothing that is worn by many of the people who practice Islam.
If you fast forward three years into the future, my life will have changed in every way. At first it wasn’t even my life, I never felt this thing. I had just started wearing a hijab and I didn’t understand why it made people near me so uncomfortable. When I started wearing a hijab everything in my life was affected by it. Everything was affected in a negative way; nobody wanted to be near a terrorist. Let alone near, nobody wanted to be friends with a terrorist, and still nobody does.
I’ve grown to understand why my mother stood up for herself, and for my aunt, and for all Muslims, and for Islam.
Every day I leave my house thinking how is my hijab going to affect me today? Out of fear that someone might make a comment on my hijab, or make a racist remark about my religion, everywhere I go I smile.
Everywhere I go, I feel like I’m obligated to smile all the time at everyone.
I don’t like to smile. I think I don’t like to smile anymore because I’m obligated to do it all the time. When I enter a store and the employees look at me, I smile and say “hi,” so that they are comforted by the tone of voice. Yet, I also do this so I feel more assured and safe. When I’m being followed by employees at a store I end up leaving because I know what they’re thinking. They don’t want a girl who may or may not be a terrorist to roam around the store and make other customers uncomfortable.
When I enter a classroom I do the same thing, I smile at everyone because I never know what people are thinking. In history class, when we talk about terrorism and Islam I can’t stand up for my religion or for myself. What shames me the most is I’m afraid to stand up for my religion, let alone myself. If I try to say “terrorism has nothing to do with Islam,” it has to do with extreme “Islamist” leaders, then people would question me and my religion and I’m not strong enough to tell people they’re wrong. When September 11th, 2001 is brought up, I can’t stand up for thousands of Muslims who feared for their lives after this incident because on that day many innocent lives were lost.
Yet, please, someone look at it from our side, too. When I started this school, no one wanted to be my friend — not because I was new — but because of my hijab. There are several people who started this school with me and the ones who don’t wear hijabs made plenty of friends, yet those of us who do wear them have been limited to making one or two friends.
On social media when equality and justice is brought up, I can’t stand up for my religion because people will bring up ISIS, and al Qaeda but no one will bring up the KKK, and the group of Southerners who are trying to shut down the mosques. The thing I can’t seem to comprehend is how they can think this of a girl like me. I’m scared to touch ladybugs because they move. When I see spiders I scream. When I see a dog, I run in the opposite direction. Yet there are thousands and thousands of people out there who fear me because of my hijab.
There are people out there who have actual fears: arachnophobia (the fear of spiders), ophidiophobia (the fear of snakes), and acrophobia (the fear of heights). There are so many things to be fearful of: the proliferation of Chinese eugenics, black swan events, and the fact that we continue to rely on models that have been proven fraudulent. Recently 150 scientists explained what the greatest threats were to humanity. Yet, not one of them mentioned religion or different cultures. Not one of the scientists mentioned terrorism. Yet I need to explain how being a covered Muslim has impacted my life in way that should never be.
I was thirteen and I had just started wearing a hijab. I was really excited, I decided on covering up on the first day of Ramadan. Ramadan is the ninth month of the Muslim year, during which strict fasting is observed from sunrise to sunset. This month brought happiness to us, it showed who was finally an adult and could fast the entire month. It was a time of joy, where we would gather at our friends houses and break our fasts at sunset. Going through long endless nights where from sunset until sunrise we felt the most alive. Enjoying Turkish tea at ungodly hours of the night, and watching tv until we were told to quiet down because the neighbors were sleeping. It was the perfect time of the year to finally start wearing a hijab.
My family was excited for me, my friends even more. My friends from different religions and cultures couldn’t wait to see how I looked, they were happy for me. When school began, all of my friends were in shock, but not in a bad way. They couldn’t believe how I looked and how it changed me. They were so happy and interested in it. They began to ask me more questions about Islam more than they did before and they loved all the aspects of it. My teachers loved it too, when they saw that I was finally wearing a hijab they were happy for me. This comforted me, it made me feel like nothing would ever be wrong with my choice of representing my religion. People were saying how I would have trouble because everyone would judge me, and stare at me, I felt like none of that would apply to me.
I was wrong. A couple months had gone by, and everything was fine. I didn’t understand why people turned it into a big deal. But soon after, the pain began to set in. I remember one day in particular just like it was yesterday. I was out shopping with my cousin, who also wears a hijab like me. We had just left the shoe section and were heading over to the teenager section. We were being our typical selves; we were laughing about random things that weren’t even funny. We were making jokes and having a good time. While we entered a little boy ran from one side to the next playing hide and seek with a man which seemed to be his grandfather. The lady who looked like she was his grandmother was looking at clothes and I began to mind my own business. For some reason what the grandmother said caught my attention. She told the little boy who was at most six to stay close to her because it wasn’t “safe.”
I remember not looking at them because it’s impolite to stare. I continued looking at the racks filled with shirts and jeans and minded my own business. The grandfather began to laugh and my cousin asked me to leave because she felt like something was wrong. When we walked by them one more time to leave, the grandmother on purpose loudly said “come next to me, don’t leave my side you never know who’s going to try to hurt you and kidnap you.” The grandfather had just laughed again and made a joke about terrorism. This startled me because — and I mean no offense — they weren’t white. They were black, and for them to make stereotypical racist comments had me shocked. How could these people who face racist comments as much as I do, make a racist comment about me and my religion?
That moment that was the first time I had ever felt my heart break. I didn’t want to be there, I didn’t want to shop anymore, I just wanted to be home. How could such a hate filled comment come out of someone like her? Someone who should understand what it’s like to be discriminated and hated against for something we should embrace? Yet I continued on with my day because I had no choice but to do so. I couldn’t tell anyone what happened because they just wouldn’t understand, the people who would understand would tell me it’s normal and not to get bothered by it.
Two years later, I’m shopping with my same cousin, and my other cousin is with us. My other cousin isn’t covered, yet she does all her religious duties such as praying, reciting the Quran, fasting, etc. We were minding our own business again and having a good time and were about to enter a store. As we were going a group of people passed by and one of the boys yelled “f-ing terrorists” to us. We all heard it but my covered cousin and I acted like nothing happened and entered the store. My cousin who isn’t covered and is also younger than us was infuriated. She was ready to blow, she looked at me with anger filled eyes and said, “Elif you’re always ready to fight and stand up for things like this with strangers. Why didn’t you do it now?”
My cousin looked at me and I looked at her and we just laughed and ignored her. She didn’t understand what was happening. She kept asking us why we didn’t do anything. When she wouldn’t leave us alone I finally had to tell her. I looked at her and I told her these exact words, “This happens all the time, everywhere we go we’re known as terrorists. People give us dirty looks, they follow us, they mock us, they push us while walking because that’s what we are to them; we’re nothing. There’s nothing to do about it but act like it’s not happening and move on.”
She was only a little kid, and you could see how much pain she felt from what I had just told her. She didn’t believe it, or she didn’t want to. I didn’t want to believe it either but the moment I put on my hijab I had to believe it. I wasn’t me, and I never will be me because now to the entire world I’m nothing but my hijab.
If you fast forward to how my life is now, it’s still the same. Everywhere I go at least one person is in fear of my hijab. At least one person is making a racist remark. At least one person is giving me a dirty look. At least one person is keeping an eye out for me. At least one person has mentioned September 11th, 2001 once. My hijab has affected my life in so many ways and most of them are negative.
Yet if I was given a chance to redo it all, I wouldn’t change a thing. My hijab is not who I am. I am not a terrorist. I am not ISIS. I am not al Qaeda. I am not an immigrant. I did not do September 11th, 2001. I am more. Alhamdulillah.