Ever since I was very young, I have been told by my parents, “Don’t tell people you’re Muslim. Don’t say you’re Pakistani. Don’t talk about politics.” It was for good reason: They wanted to keep me safe. They didn’t want me to be picked out for being brown like my brother had been. So I grew up with my mother introducing us as Indian, pretending I celebrated Christmas, and hiding my mehndi stained hands after Eid each year. All to avoid being called a “terrorist.”
It was never easy. When we were taught about the origins of Easter in primary school, I longed to have my culture up on the board too. I never saw myself in television or book characters. I watched from the sidelines as people around me cracked Islamophobic jokes. As I grew older, I noticed kids around me talking about where their families immigrated from years ago: Italy, Poland, Finland. I almost shared as well, to show I was like these people, but I didn’t and I wasn’t. They were white and Christian, I was not. I had that shadow trailing behind me for many years, reminding me that I was different, and that I needed to blend in.
I don’t usually wear hijab, but I guess I was feeling particularly defiant that day. A few minutes before leaving for the grocery store with my mom, I wrapped an American flag scarf around my head, securing it just above my ear with a pin. When I hopped into the car, my mother looked at me like I was crazy.
Maybe I was. I chalked it up as a “social experiment” and strode into BJ’s wholesale with all the confidence a self doubting thirteen year old could muster up.
The looks began.
It was as if there was a neon sign attached to my head screaming, “Look at me! I’m Muslim!” It was exhilarating, really. People were either extremely polite to me or very dismissive. As I waited in the queue, an elderly lady approached me. Suddenly I was grounded from the cloud I had been floating on the whole trip. Was she going to say something nasty to me?
“I just wanted to say,” The lady shifted nervously. I braced myself. “I love your scarf.” I managed a flustered thank you before she hurried to the front doors.
I’m not certain what I was expecting. I think that experience taught me how to be comfortable in my own brown skin. If I could be comfortable in an American flag hijab, then I could surely embrace my culture every day. How would people learn what Muslims are like if I didn’t talk about it? How could I change people’s minds if I hid?
I don’t need to hide my ethnicity and religion anymore. I layer intricate mehndi on my hands all year round, and raise them high. I speak loudly in Urdu and highly of Pakistan. I believe in being proud of where you came from, and not letting fear change who you are. Of course, I still have my moments of self doubt like anyone else. Every so often, I hear or see something that breaks my focus on self love. Then I remember that there aren’t enough voices like mine, and I rise up.