There are a thousand ways to feel small and I thought I had felt them all.
I was born five pounds and 19 inches. My mother would wash me in the hotel bathroom sink during vacations, cupping water over my head; a newborn baptism. During a field trip in 5th grade, my classmates threw me into a bed sheet and tossed me up like a frisbee, chanting my name. In college when we would hunt for a midnight snack, I would hide in the space below a car’s glove compartment, ready to scrunch up even further if the cops pulled us over.
It was in my freshman year of high school that I virtually disappeared. In my Texan suburban school, there weren’t enough minorities to even get us confused with each other, and I was the sole hijabi out of roughly 2,600 students. I took my smallness and hid in it, caving into the halls, standing on the furthest corner of cement, waiting for the school bus to take me away from homogeneity.
After seven years of living in Texas, my parents moved our family to California. I expected to see Leonardo DiCaprio walking outside our block and was startled to see plazas with Charles Schwab written in Chinese. Soon, my expectations were upended in the most magical way. I found diversity without knowing what that word meant or the imprint it would leave.
In my new high school in the Bay Area, I slowly formed a circle of friends who were all different from me. Different in ethnicity, thought, socioeconomic status, or upbringing. My school was all-girls, which meant no cheerleading team and no boys to determine our social hierarchy. I no longer had to fear being the only hijabi at the table.
On the cover of the brochure for my Catholic school was a hijabi whom I would later befriend. She was student body president, planned to be pre-med and a lighting bolt. As a hijabi, I stuck out, and unprepared for that type of attention, I cowered. She, on the other hand, extended into the edges of the universe which bowed down to give her more light. She gave me the nickname ‘Skinny,’ and it was in this new environment that I began to expand.
As the world and I grew older, together we faced the tide of empire: two major wars killing nearly 400,000 people in Muslim countries, the rise of ISIS, and mass shootings. I escaped woundless until one Saturday afternoon while walking to a Muslim panel, when a man swerved dangerously close to me in his truck shouting, “Is that a bomb in your pocket?!”
My hands automatically went to my pockets as if I was questioning my own integrity.
The Trump era has emboldened some to incite horror. Last November, a reported 400 hate incidents in one week hit the news. The night following the election, a 19-year old woman reported her hijab was ripped off at San Jose State University in California. I know that school; when I was 15, I would ask my mom to pick me up late so I could hang out at that campus. My friends and I would stop by McDonald’s and then walk to the quad and prance around like grown-ups. Now it had become a crime scene for a coward, who waited for a woman to turn her back before ripping off a part of her identity he claimed for himself.
Eight days later, I read about a woman who came back from a hike in Fremont, California, to find her car window smashed, purse stolen, with a note on the windshield saying “Hijab wearing b**ch. This is our nation now. Get the f**k out.” Ironically, she was not Muslim.
It was like the last two decades had not passed, and I was once more that girl in the corner trying to disappear. Before I could retreat, however, texts and calls came in. Friends and strangers following the news reached out to ask how I was doing and if anything had happened to me. They asked if I had pepper spray, if I knew self-defense. I told my protectors, alhamdulillah, I am so far fine, but as seen from the attack on a Quebec mosque last Sunday that left a reported six Muslims murdered and eight wounded, the Muslim community has every reason to fear what may happen next.
Trump’s recent immigration and travel ban affecting the global and Syrian refugee program and people from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen coming to the U.S., has upended the world. It is just the latest in an onslaught of events. As people take action and march across their cities in opposition, it has become clear that we are not just shifting the gear back to automatic, we’ll stay full-swing in drive. And so I will not let the cowards make me small again; I will rise above the smallness they have forced on me and my fellow hijabis, and we will soar with our fellow humans into the cosmos of light.
In this heated time, we who wear hijabs implore you, our compatriot of humanity, to stand with us. How?
- Contact your political representatives and ask them to oppose the travel and immigration ban. You can find a sample speech here.
- Just as vividly as I remember feeling numb on election night, I remember the positive texts and calls from people that followed. Reach out to a Muslim person or someone affected by the travel and immigration ban and lend him/her your words of support. As we’ve seen from the smashed glass and note left behind, words matter.
- Learn about CAIR, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, and donate if you can. They are the leading civil rights organization for Muslims in America and are on the front lines battling discrimination. We need them more than ever and your financial support means they can do more work.
- Get to know someone currently affected by this situation if you don’t already. After I moved to California, I put myself in situations to meet global citizens from the Middle East, South America, Central America, Asia, Europe, Africa and beyond. I would not have learned nearly half of what I know if it hadn’t been from personal truth-telling. If you ask how, if you live in Southern California and are female, attend the Women’s Mosque of America, which welcomes women of all faiths to its services or listen to their services online. You can check out the first khutbah here.
- Many amazing people have creatively stood up. Writer Jennifer Hofmann started a weekly political action checklist. High school student Rana Imtiaz organized a day for students to wear hijab in solidarity in Duluth, Minnesota. Filmmaker Joshua Seftel premiered his docu-series “The Secret Lives of Muslims” after developing the idea for quite some time.
Let us continue to get up and do the work. As you hear the clamor around you, let this be the time we break free of our daily routine to support the wild winds of activism and our shared roar for dignity.