A face behind the veil

October 25, 2009
By shanza BRONZE, Flushing, New York
shanza BRONZE, Flushing, New York
1 article 0 photos 0 comments

Terrorist. My mind was busy registering this one word as I looked at the old lady who seemed to tower over me despite her hunched back. Her stare was cold enough to freeze my entire body in the position that I stood in. The lady raised her wrinkly hand. I wanted to walk past her but my legs wouldn’t budge or maybe I just didn’t want to risk angering her by doing so. Her hand came closer and I cowered but she didn’t touch me. Instead, she brought it closer to her own neck. Her eyes pierced through me, the hatred clear like the sky that afternoon. She crossed her hand over her neck making a gesture which read, “You’re dead.” That was enough to send me running down the block.

This incident occurred about a year after the tragic occurrence of 9/11. I had become accustomed to seeing Muslims being portrayed as terrorists in the media. However, being a young girl of twelve years I did not think it would impact my life until my encounter with the old lady. Being too young to comprehend the encounter as a confrontation between myself and the reality of my identity, I began to hold the veil, my hijab, at fault. For many months I tried to conceal my religion with the fear of being judged. I found myself making sure everyday that I bare my head of the white cotton hijab as soon as I stepped out of my school, where I fit in regardless since it was mandatory for all females to wear it. I felt satisfied and I put the incident behind me but yet I never dared to put on the hijab outside, afraid of the response I might receive.

My initial feelings of ‘belonging’ after changing my appearance were soon replaced by the same old insecurities when I began to witness other Muslim woman undergo similar or worse occurrences than my own. The first of many took place on one of the most diverse platforms of New York City, the subway on 42nd Street Times Square. I was sitting on the 7 train, impatiently waiting for the doors of the train to close and for it to begin moving. The train was mostly empty with the exception of the further corner where a group of friends were conversing loud enough for everyone to hear. I opened the mystery book which I had in my hand as an attempt to pass time by reading and I silently cursed myself for forgetting my headphones at home. Unable to concentrate I put down the book and noticed that a girl with a hijab had just slipped into the seat across from me. Soon after, the train began to move and the seat next to the girl’s seat was taken by an old woman. The woman began to talk to the girl with the hijab. After another failed attempt at reading, I gave up and began to eavesdrop on their conversation. “So, do you have some bombs hidden in your bag?” the woman said to the girl in the hijab. Sitting across from them, I felt color rush into my face and I felt embarrassed for the girl. However, to my surprise her behavior had not changed. She replied with a “No” to the old lady, got up, and walked away. Sitting there I began thinking back to how I had reacted to the old woman on the street as a child. Knowing that I would have reacted in the same way as I had than, I was completely a taken by how this girl had handled the remark.

After the incident with the girl in the train I became less afraid of wearing the hijab. I would come out of school and not feel obliged to take off my hijab to boost my confidence. I kept it on ready to face the judgments which were to be made but what occurred soon after was not what I had prepared myself for. On a spring afternoon just like every other weekday I swiped into the 61st street Woodside train station. As I made my way towards the stairs which led to the 7 train platform I tried not to think about the ache I felt because of the burden on my shoulder. My bag, which looked like Santa’s Christmas sack, felt like 50 pounds because of the heavy textbooks and the uniform I had stuffed into it. I was about to go up the stairs to the 7 train platform when an officer asked me to step aside. The first thought which ran through my head was that this must have something to do with my hijab. I put my bag down to search for my I.D. which the cop had asked to see. When I handed him the I.D. he asked, “What do you have in that bag?” I couldn’t help but think about the girl with the hijab on the train and the old lady who asked her if she had bombs in her bag. “School books and uniform,” I answered back. He eyed me and stared at my bag as if his vision could penetrate through its leather exterior. I felt extremely uncomfortable due to the officer’s unusual behavior. Out of habit I put my hands in my pocket. My action happened to provoke the officer who told me to take my hands out of my pocket. I was utterly amazed at the peculiarity of this situation. After asking me a few more questions about where I was headed and if my parents knew where I was the officer decided to let me go. I controlled my urge to ask him why he had asked me to step aside and question me with the demeanor he had employed. What was it that made me look different from the rest? Of course, I knew the answer and so did the tall white officer but it was not something that would be said out loud and I just decided to let it be.

It is not just in subways or on the streets that Muslim woman are pinpointed, pulled aside, or demeaned because of their appearance. Corporate America is also a platform for such misjudgments and prejudices. I have a Muslim friend who worked at Merrill Lynch, a global financial services firm owned by Bank of America. She not only happened to be the only Muslim woman to work there but also the first Muslim working woman that many of her of her co-workers had a chance to interact with. When she recalls her experience, she tells me how the idea of a Muslim woman especially one who wears the hijab was extremely bizarre for most of her co-workers despite working in such a big corporate company. They were appalled to find a Muslim woman that was not only allowed to get an education but on top of that was allowed to work. Other co-workers confronted her wanting to know if she was forced to wear the hijab and were left gaping when her answer was that most Muslim women who wear the hijab do so by choice and not by coercion. “Such stereotypes are common about us,” my friend says to me, “We need to show our capabilities to this world not by hiding our identities but by portraying who we are. Hijab is something we believe in and we cannot let anyone step on us because of it. Mingling with others and allowing them to view us closely is the only way we can change their perception toward us which will ultimately lead to some sort of acceptance in this society. The idea of working with and seeing women who not only have a completely different set of beliefs but also a different appearance needs some getting used to.”

All these experiences which left me mortified have eventually built my confidence and have made me discover myself. When I was twelve I had run away from fear of the old lady and ever since I have been running away from myself and from the fear of my identity. I had blamed my hijab and had taken it off as an attempt to disguise myself and blend in. However, my internal conflict was never solved because I wasn’t able to recognize the root of the difference. The root of the insecurities which make me feel different arise from the direct association implied by the word Muslim to the word Terrorism. I was afraid to be categorized. I took off the hijab because I felt that by doing so I would not be judged or singled out. However, by witnessing different people undergo similar prejudices I realized that hiding myself is not the solution. There are people out there that strive to change the prejudices which exist by proving them wrong. With this realization I have found the confidence within myself to know who I am and to be able to portray who I am. I can now acknowledge that I am a Muslim and not be afraid to be called a Terrorist. It’s not that people have stopped associating the two words but rather I have become open to such remarks. I have turned these remarks into my motivation to show my differences and utilize them to end the ignorance which exists around me. It is by fighting ignorance that I feel I am fighting prejudice.

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