This post was also published in The Express Tribune. To see that post, please click here.
I started wearing a headscarf in 2nd grade. I was 6 years old, and while many may find this difficult to believe, the decision was entirely my own. Yes, I was raised in a family that was in-tune with its religious identity, and yes, my mother did cover her hair, but no, she did not force/blackmail me into wearing a scarf. My father didn’t have anything to do with it either, for those of you who are thinking he probably pressurized my mom behind the scenes, since the stereotype says all Muslim men oppress their wives, daughters and even mothers.
I was raised in the United States, and until third grade, I went to a public school, where an overwhelming majority of the students were non-Muslim. Now when I was six, I wasn’t very aware of the whole Muslims are terrible people phobia that has come to infect the world today. I knew I might look funny to some people, and kids might tease me just like they taunted the short, Sikh boy in my class. He wore a turban, which was usually bright blue, and he was the butt of many jokes. I also knew that I loved God, my God, my Allah, and with a confidence that every child is blessed with, I pulled on that scarf and I’ve never looked back.
Let’s make one thing clear: I am not the best of Muslims. It would be a long stretch to even call me a very good Muslim, however you choose to quantify that particular “goodness”. I struggle with understanding and interpreting my faith, and I struggle with the world around me, as many men and women around the world do, regardless of whether they are Bahai, Christian, Zoroastrian, Jewish, etc. I do, however, have a very strong underlying faith in Islam, and in God. And I remember thinking, when I was walking into Mrs. Mattson’s second grade homeroom that first day I covered my hair, “They must be looking at me because my hijab is so cool!“
Believe it or not, it was easier for me to wear a scarf in America than it was for me to wear it here, in Pakistan. The Islamic Republic of Pakistan. Even post-9/11, when I walked into Wal-Mart with my mom, the American at the door said Salam alaikum, which is the Islamic way of saying hello in Arabic. I managed a quick glace at his name card, and I still remember it said Rob Morris. He had a big smile on his face, and though you may say he was just doing his job, I don’t believe it.
When 9/11 happened, I was in Pakistan, and our flight home was delayed several weeks due to the attacks. When I finally came back, I remember that even though I didn’t understand what exactly had happened, and why it had happened, I remember that my cousins in Pakistan had said to me that my friends wouldn’t treat me the same anymore. But when I got back, I was still me, and they were still my friends. Now I can’t speak for all the American population, but I’d just like to say that I did not, in those few years directly after 9/11 face any serious backlash on a personal level. This could be because I lived a very sheltered life, and I’m thankful I never experienced any severe negativity.
It was when I started O-Levels (8th grade), that I faced social backlash. I had just moved to Pakistan, and was having trouble adjusting to my new school, my “long lost” relatives, and “the motherland”. Friends and extended family were very open with their opinions about my scarf. They found it ‘unnecessary’, ‘restricting’ and ‘useless’. I was pressurized to stop covering. My grandmother even went as far as to insist that I stop being ‘childish and ridiculous’, when I planned to wear a scarf to my cousin’s engagement party.
Children in school whispered that I was probably ‘crazy’, ‘backward’, or just bald. I was nicknamed ‘Taliban’. The criticism was difficult to bear, and harder to understand. Why was there so much hate directed at me because of a piece of cloth?
Islam transcends national boundaries, and culturally-based definitions. In Pakistan, Islam has often been held hostage by the prevailing idea of nationalism, and the human aspect has been ignored. Instead of the principles of equality, honesty, peace, and forgiveness, Islam is seen as a destructive force. By wearing a scarf, I was the enemy.
The experience taught me that I needed to believe in myself, and my faith in education, economic development, and democracy to show people that associating with your religion does not mean you are backward, incapable, or narrow-minded. It has made me stronger. I can achieve my educational and professional goals without giving up who I am, and who I want to be. Furthermore, if I am confident in my identity, others will be as well.
I hope all hijabis out there find an inner confidence, and I hope the world sees us as more than the stereotype. Most of us are not oppressed. Many of us love our scarf. I certainly do. If we’re all talking about freedom these days, then why don’t we understand that there is freedom of choice? The choice to wear a scarf.
Note: I do not in any way condone forcing a girl to wear a scarf. I believe it is a decision to be made on a personal level.