I was 13 when I started wearing the hijab, on the 3rd day of 8th grade. My mom had taken me to the mall after school, and out of the blue, she looked over and asked me, “Do you want to start wearing the hijab?”
I didn’t answer right away. If I chose this path, I could never go back. I thought about a lot of things in those few seconds, though it felt like hours; I would never be able to show my hair to the rest of the world ever again, and more importantly to my 13-year-old-self, I could never wear capris pants again. But what wasn’t running through my brain were the implications of wearing the hijab, or what my peers and teachers would think of me. My decision, my choice, to cover myself didn’t come from my insecurities or endless overthinking. It came from my heart.
I remember glancing at myself in the mirror across from where we standing amongst the lady’s dresses in Dillard’s, and as I took a deep breath and said, “Yes,” a hopeful smile spread across my face. I haven’t looked back since. At first, it didn’t feel all too different to me. I adjusted to the sudden protection and coverage quickly, and the relentless Florida sun didn’t bother me all too much. The hijab wasn’t a completely new concept; my sister had begun wearing it 3 years prior, and my mother had been wearing for as long as I can remember. I would wear it whilst praying and when I went to the mosque, so it was something I felt at ease and comfortable in. It was encouraged in my family, but from the very beginning it was my choice. It quickly became about so much more than faith; the hijab was a physical representation of my identity, resilience, and dignity.
It wasn’t until my classmates, my friends, and even my teachers started treating me differently that I felt out of place. Some were comfortable enough with me to ask me directly about the choice I had made, something that I appreciated greatly. A couple days after I began to show up to school with the hijab, my science teacher pulled up a desk next to me after class and asked me what exactly it was, and why I had decided to wear it. I was happy to answer questions about my religion, if only to ease concerns or clear misunderstandings. Maybe he would tell other teachers, and they would tell their families, who would tell their friends, and it would be a cycle of learning and understanding. My friends, after telling them the reason I began to cover was because I wanted to, shrugged and moved on. But in the hallways, I was glared at. Stares and whispers followed me wherever I went. I got used to hearing, “Taliban” being shouted at me, or being told, “go back to your country.”
Islam teaches peace, patience, respect, and forgiveness. These are values encouraged by the Prophet Muhammad and preached by true Muslims. I can’t imagine my life without the hijab, and I simply don’t want to. It was a challenge to stop caring about what people thought of me, or stopping myself from debating every single uninformed person on Twitter. With every step I take out in the world, I have to remind myself that I’m not living for them. I’m living for myself, for my parents, for my religion.
Feminism refers to the equality in all aspects for all genders. By wearing the hijab, I fight for my own chance to be treated fairly in society rather than being stared at or singled out simply because I don’t show my hair or I wear pieces of cloth on my head. My choice to dress modestly and not show off my body to everyone is me taking control of my life, my choices, and the beauty I was born with. My hijab empowers me in a way nothing else could, and that’s exactly what feminism is. It is very easy to confuse culture and tradition with religion. Much of the Middle Eastern customs Western society tends to judge is based on traditions dating back to the time of the prophets. Without immediately knowing the difference, the main culprit may look to be Islam, but it is in fact, not. Islam encourages both feminism and women’s personal choices, giving way to women’s rights long before the United States ever adapted them. Oppression occurs not because of religion but because of people who abuse their powers. Gender equality is a social issue we need to focus on around the world, not just America and not just the Middle East, but degrading women who cover themselves is certainly not the way to go about it.
In today’s world, Islamophobia has become a real issue, and one that I am confronted with nearly every day of my life. The hijab has become a physical object people use to target me, and yet, through all the hatred and the ignorance, I still do not regret wrapping the scarf over my head every day. American diversity is a strength, and so is our commitment to the ideals of justice and equality. Our history is not without stumbles, but each mistake has proven that this nation is made more successful and irrepressible through fight, compassion, and inclusivity. That’s why my parents came here, to the home of the free and the land of the brave. It’s why in the 21st century, women continue to fight for equality and Muslims fight for acceptance. It’s why every day, as I wrap my hijab, I remember that smile full of hope from my 13-year-old reflection and live for that girl.
Thakur is the Editor-in-Chief and Founder of The Millennial Times.