Photography by Pat Nadolski
The first thing people notice about me is the scarf wrapped around my head. My hijab.
And I’ll be honest, it’s taken me a while to be okay with that.
Let’s just get one thing clear and out of the way: if you still think the hijab is misogynistic, oppressive, and forced upon women, go do some research or message me on Facebook so I can quickly get rid of that thought.
Even though I didn’t always wear the headscarf, the journey to where I am now still hasn’t been easy. Growing up Muslim in a post 9/11 world where the climate was constantly charged with anti-Muslim rhetoric, I don’t think I was ever able to fully accept that I could be Muslim and American at the same time. I could be a Pakistani who was born and raised in the United States. My identities did not have to, nor did they, clash like the mainstream narrative was constantly telling me. So when I made the personal choice to be the first woman in my family to put the hijab on, it was me finally coming to terms with my identity regardless of the voices around me telling me not to.
At the time I put it on, however, I was still living in my little high school bubble. I was one of 25 students in my graduating class, so coming to Rutgers was a big change. My first semester was difficult because, for the first time, I had thousands of people making different assumptions about me before I even had the chance to talk to them. For the first time, I felt uncomfortable in my hijab.
Then, everything changed in February 2015: Three incredible Muslim students – Deah, Yusor, and Razan – were killed in a hate crime in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Words couldn’t describe how shocked and heartbroken I was. When Rutgers’ President, Robert Barchi, sent out an email to the student body afterward, he reaffirmed that our community was built on respect and acceptance. It was then that I realized that I had a responsibility. People around me would see my hijab and automatically – even if it was unintentional – stereotype me; so it was up to me to break those very stereotypes and stand up against the unnecessary hate. I became more involved in things I enjoyed on and off campus, I began taking an active stance against injustice, spoke up louder as I took part in important conversations, and was immediately more confident in myself.
The diversity we have on our campus has allowed me to see the importance of accurate representation. Everyone has a voice that deserves to be heard. If I didn’t speak up for myself and other Muslim women, somebody else would do the talking for us like they have been for the past couple of decades. Rutgers is made up of students who are constantly willing to learn more instead of being clouded by their ignorance. Being able to attend an institution like this has enabled me to learn about others while exploring and understanding who I am.
Rutgers has given me the opportunity to not just be okay with my identity, but to be proud of it.
Which is why my personal decision to put the scarf on is no longer just a symbol of my religion. My hijab forces people to really see me beyond just my outward appearance in a society that constantly dictates to women what we should and should not wear. It has been my motivation to do things just because people won’t expect me to. It represents my strength and courage to put it on in a climate such as the one we live in today. It is an act of demanding justice for marginalized communities. It is a reminder to constantly be my best self – an “outer reflection of my inner self” kind of thing. And my hijab represents my freedom – a reminder to society that you do not own me.
No, my scarf does not define all of me – but it is a big part of my identity.
Because every time someone sees me with this scarf on and their mind starts flashing images of inaccurate stereotypes, I just can’t wait to prove them wrong.