I’ve always wanted to be confident in myself, in who I am and what I can do, but my chance at confidence was stolen at the age of 12. I’ve always wanted to speak out against bigotry and bullying, but I was too afraid.
I’ve carried around this anger and sadness from my experiences in middle school and high school. I’ve always thought about if I could go back (as the person I am now), how different things could have been. Then I think, those experiences have given me the strength that I have today. As cliche as that sounds.
I think I’m circling back to that part of my life because we are still dealing with the same rhetoric and bigotry as we did immediately following the devastating events of September 11th. When I say “we” I mean the American-Muslim community. We’re still put on the chopping block with every terrorist attack committed by someone who claims to be “Muslim.”
However, there is something different as of late: Donald Trump. Trump and his breed of bigots.
He has created a sense of fear in the homes of many Muslim families, and a sense of entitlement in the homes of his supporters. Every time I head out the door, I mentally prepare myself (as I did every morning before school) for the possibility that someone may look at me with disgust or throw a slur my way. Not only because I have read countless stories about fellow Muslims being harassed in this way (and worse), but because I’ve experienced the hate at the age of 12.
I woke up the morning of 7th grade, oblivious to the gravity of the life-changing choice I was about to make: the hijab. I’m the 4th girl out of a total of 7 and looked up to my three older sisters who all wore the hijab, so naturally I felt like it was time to start wearing it.
Looking back, that year was probably the hardest personal struggle. Middle school is such a difficult time when it comes to self-image. Everyone is trying their best to fit in. I was essentially living two lives. During the weekend I would spend time with my Muslim friends who I completely identified with, but during the week I was the quiet hijab-wearing Muslim girl desperately trying to fit in.
Being a girl in middle school is really no joke (without even discussing hijab). You feel pressure more than anything to meet certain standards of beauty. So of course, that was me as well, coupled with wearing hijab.
I never really thought about my looks until the age of 12. I started wearing make-up and I started becoming more aware of the prevalence and harsh expectations of “beauty” in our society.
Two months after I started wearing hijab, September 11th happened. And that was really the first time I felt the hatred. I felt the stares, and even worse than that I endured the finger-pointing, the laughing and the name-calling at school. I spent most of the time pretending it wasn’t happening, but some days after school I was left in tears.
My two worlds collided in a way I never expected. Not only was I being made fun of for the way I looked (as many children are at that age), but I was also being judged for wearing hijab. I wanted so badly for my peers to perceive me as normal, as one of them.
I remember one time I brought my P.E. clothes in a Forever 21 bag and a girl asked, “You shop there?” Not going to lie, I was excited that someone finally realized I shopped where they shopped, but now I realize she was asking that because she was surprised that someone who looked like me could possibly shop there.
I was trying so hard to be that sort of beautiful, to be considered normal. I relied heavily on fashion and wearing the brands everyone else was wearing. It may have been a way I was coping.
I recently came across this question: What would you tell your 12-year-old self? Although it wasn’t a question directed towards me, it got me thinking. Where do I even start?
Kids at school were constantly making fun of me. Not to mention, also during this time, cyber bullying was very much prevalent in my life. I was being bullied by a boy online. I was told by him on a daily basis that I was “ugly.” And he constantly told me I would never be like the cheerleader at his school.
From being bullied to the point where I had to switch classes, to having one of my friends throughout elementary school think it was funny to pull my scarf off during lunch to having someone call me “Bin Laden” and proceed to laugh with his friends; then going home after school to deal with even more bullying online. I was dealing with so much at such a young age.
So what would I tell 12-year-old me?
Love yourself no matter what. Being a girl is a constant struggle no matter how old you are. There is a definition of beauty that society dictates, and we all become enslaved by it if we allow it. So love yourself, and be true to yourself.
Although I would tell my 12-year-old self these things, I don’t regret or wish to go back and change everything. Those experiences made me who I am today. It made me stronger, and it gives me so much insight that I can share with my own daughter one day God-willing.
I’ve been trying to understand my past and find a way to pull something positive out of every situation. It may take some time, but I believe it’s a truly necessary process to continue to grow and live happily.
I know many American-Muslim children are still enduring this type of hate in school, and it’s not going to stop any time soon. Not when we have a presidential candidate constantly spewing hate and creating a climate where the closeted bigots are no longer silent. As long as we give people like Trump a platform to spread hate and get praise for it, nothing will change.
After September 11th, the American-Muslim community was blamed, and we still are. Donald Trump continues to feed the Islamophobic movement by making sure after every attack, he lets America know it’s not just terrorism, it’s Islamic.
Some of his supporters are raising children who are likely to go to school and bully the Muslim kids they come across because of their parents’ support for Trump. Because that’s what they’re taught, that’s what they hear at home.
All I can hope for is that 15 years from now, we’re no longer dealing with the backlash, the blame, or the “Islamophobia.” I hope that our children will no longer feel hated for who they are or how they choose to dress. I hope our daughters (those who choose to) can wear the hijab and feel empowered, beautiful, confident, and accepted by their own standards, not society’s.
I’ve always just wanted to be accepted for who I am. Which is really what hijab is all about. To feel protected, to feel confident, and to love yourself. Although I did not understand this at 12, those experiences have actually shaped who I am today. I turned to fashion to try to fit in and didn’t realize that, that was my path to fall in love with hijab. The hijab has become my identity, it’s me, my form of expression; and I owe it all to my religion and my way of life, Islam.
It’s time to turn the page.