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Putting on the Hijab


My decision to put on the headscarf wasn’t just a symbol of fidelity to my religion. It also represents defiance against Islamophobia: It’s a demand for justice for marginalized communities, and reminds society that it does not own me.

I first heard an Islamophobic slur when I was in kindergarten. A man on TV said that the United States should “bomb the shit out of the Middle East, to kill off all the Muslims.” I was rattled to my core. I began questioning why he equated Muslim majority countries with terrorism – or why anyone would try to find a correlation between my religion and violence.

That was on September 11, 2001.

I was attending a private Islamic school. Our academic curriculum was rigorous. It ranked as one of the best in the state, and also gave us an Islamic education. But that day I was more scared in school than I’d ever been before, or would be again.

I didn’t understand why my teachers were panicked, and crying.

I didn’t understand why we were on lockdown, as cop cars flooded our school’s parking lot, their sirens blaring.

I didn’t understand why the school workers and teachers who wore hijabs took them off before stepping outside, and into their cars.

I didn’t understand why my mom was in such a hurry to get home that day, when she came to pick me up early.

But what I did understand was that something bad had happened in our country.

I just couldn’t foresee the long-term effects, especially on people like me.

Just Your Average American Muslims

My family is practicing – meaning that we pray five times a day, fast during the month of Ramadan, don’t eat pork and believe in the oneness of God. We don’t consider ourselves “conservatives” or “liberals” – we’re just your average American Muslims. This country is our home, and gives us the ability to freely practice our religion. Or, at least, the Constitution says it should.

However, growing up in post-9/11 America, I’ve seen and experienced the way American Muslims are constantly put under suspicion, whenever a terrorist attack is carried out by the Taliban, Al Qaeda, or more recently, by ISIS. Somehow, all Muslims are held responsible for the actions of the attackers.

That’s why, in 2001, there was huge spike in hate crimes against Muslims — to 481 reported incidents, from just 28 the year before, according to FBI data published by Public Radio International. And of course, many hate crimes go unnoticed or unrecorded. Hate speech and “minor” incidents aren’t captured in official documentation, if they don’t require any governmental or police action. That’s why these numbers,  though incredibly alarming, don’t tell the full story.

Standing Up to Islamophobia

The Oxford English Dictionary defines Islamophobia as “a dislike of or prejudice against Islam or Muslims, especially as a political force.” The term suddenly gained momentum in the early to mid 1990s, and Google searches of  the word spiked.  This was likely due to the rise of the Taliban, after it took power in Afghanistan. What began as a local army fighting with the United States to rebel the Soviet invasion turned into an extremist group.  Its revolt against the Western world distorted the image of a peaceful religion.

Afghanistan was once divided into various tribes, led by powerful leaders who were Pathan, or more commonly known as Pashtuns. These relatively light-skinned individuals were known for their strength, bravery and loyalty.  As the ethnic majority in Afghanistan, they dominated the mujahedeen who fought on behalf of the United States against the USSR for independence.

Growing up Muslim in a world charged with anti-Muslim rhetoric, I don’t think I was ever able to fully accept that I could be simultaneously Muslim and American. I could be a Pakistani who was born and raised in the United States. My identities did not have to, nor did they, clash the way the mainstream narrative was constantly telling me.

So when I became the first woman in my family to put on the hijab, at 17, it was me finally coming to terms with my identity, even though the voices around me were advising me not to.

That’s why my decision to put on the scarf was no longer just a symbol of my fidelity to my religion. It also represents defiance against Islamophobia. It’s a demand for justice for marginalized communities, and represents my freedom.  It reminds society that it does not own me.

We saw that the 2016 presidential election was laced with anti-Muslim rhetoric. Whether it came from the candidates, other politicians, the mainstream media or ordinary Americans, it often seemed directed toward people who “looked Muslim.”

This included people who were simply perceived as being foreign, with something alien wrapped around the head.  The Sikh community is often targeted by bigots who harbor anti-Muslim sentiments. As visibly Sikh men wear turbans, those who are ignorant automatically associate them with extremism.

After the ISIS-linked terrorist attacks in Paris that killed 130 people in November 2015, there was a sudden increase in hate crimes against Muslims. There were just  eight recorded incidents in October, but in November there were 35, and in December, 53, according to data compiled by the Bridge Initiative, a Georgetown University research project to promote Christian-Muslim understanding. I would argue that the media’s constant coverage of the attacks, framed as being carried out by radicalized Muslims; and Republican candidates’ anti-Muslim discourses; were major driving forces for these attacks against innocent Muslims.

Hate crime reports then dwindled, but the March 2016 suicide bombings in Brussels refueled bigots and ignorant individuals, prompting another spike in hate crime. After the June 12, 2016 mass shooting in an Orlando nightclub, searches for terms like “ban Muslims” and “Muslims are terrorists,” rose, PRI reported.

Some of these hate incidents were prompted by anti-Muslim rhetoric in the 2016 presidential campaign. In fact, the FBI reported that hate crimes against Muslims rose by 67 percent in 2015 – starting with the launch of the presidential campaign.

President Donald Trump’s Muslim ban was heavily debated in the media, but well-received by those afraid of an influx of Syrian refugees escaping their war-torn country. Some Americans applauded Sen. Ted Cruz’s proposal to patrol “Muslim neighborhoods.” Both Trump and Hillary Clinton told us to begin spying on members of our own communities, and to report suspicious activity to officials – as if that’s the only thing we could be good for.

Here’s the truth about being Muslim in the United States of America:

We grieve whenever there’s a terror attack.

And we grieve again if the attacker is found to be a “radical Muslim” — because not only was there an attack on innocents, but all other Muslims will be blamed.

And then the hate will continue.

That’s the cycle of terror.


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About the Author

Safaa Khan
Somerset, New Jersey

Professor: Carol Cassidy
Class: Writing for Media

The hijab, for me, has always been more than a way to practice my religion. I have used it a way to proudly wear my identity and make a stand. I was able to use my personal experiences and combine those with the facts to write a compelling story about why stereotypes are problematic and inaccurate. I also wanted to stress that the cycle of terror is never ending for Muslims and minorities, and can only be fixed society takes a stand against hateful and false rhetoric.