Being born and raised in a white-populated country, I had been a victim of micro-aggression and racism all my life. I’m a 26-year-old brown Muslim woman who covers her head with a hijab, and my parents come from Pakistan, where a huge chunk of my paternal and maternal families lives. Hijab, to me, was always a choice that was never imposed nor suggested by my parents. Up until age 21, I had never worn a hijab before, except while praying or performing any other religious ritual, but after turning 22, I experienced a sudden repositioning of heart, and I started looking for ways to find nearness to God, and that’s when I decided to carry a hijab to appease the creator. But that decision proved to be a turning point in my life because it completely reconfigured the way most people around me, including my closest friends, perceived me.
Shifting Perceptions of People Around Me
One week after my decision, I started noticing how a lot of my white friends began to distance themselves from me. They started off by being passive-aggressive and finding excuses to not see me and then totally cutting me off from their lives. I became very vulnerable at that time because those were some of the oldest and closest people I knew, and our friendship dated back to school. But soon, it became very discernable that they didn’t want to be friends with me anymore. And so, the journey of my life as a hijabi began, which at times felt unbearable because of how lonely it would get and how vulnerable I would feel when I was surrounded by the white gaze.
New Rules of Navigation
My life became deeply entangled with my hijabi identity as I got closer to the religion and began to practice and embody it. But at the same time, I frequently encountered outright discrimination and anger from people who hated my identity and faith. Before wearing a hijab, I never felt afraid to walk on the streets, even at night. The neighborhood felt like a home to me, where I could walk anytime I wanted. But soon after I altered my appearance, the same neighborhood turned into a foreign country to me. I had to learn new rules of navigation, the way you teach a toddler how to walk. When toddlers begin their journey toward walking, they stumble, trip, stop, and get frustrated by failing over and over again. I felt like a toddler once again in my adult body whenever I would take a walk outside because the rules of navigating the world around me had been changed forever.
Trip to Pakistan
Being vigilant and always on guard became my second nature, no matter where I was. University, streets, neighborhood, wherever I went, I felt unwelcomed and stood out like a sore thumb among the crowd. In the summer of 2019, after completing three years of my undergraduate degree, I got selected for Unilever’s ‘sustainable living plan’ volunteering program, for which I was supposed to travel to Pakistan. At first, the prospect of traveling alone seemed really daunting to me, and I was reluctant to take the opportunity. I tried to trace my fears through the lens of intersectionality and realized that there were not one or two but multiple reasons holding me back from traveling alone.
First, it was the sheer fact of being a woman. A woman, no matter where she is, can never count herself safe. Whether it’s an affluent American suburb or a narrow alleyway in the southern part of India, or her own room, she is always on the cusp of being harassed. And it’s never about the clothes she wears because no matter how modest or covered she is, the filthy beasts that roam around the street would do however they please. Next came my irrational and deeply ingrained fear of being looked down upon for wearing a hijab, despite the fact that I was going to travel to a Muslim-populated country. After a lot of convincing from my sister, I finally summoned up enough courage and decided to take up the opportunity to travel to Pakistan.
Time Spent in Pakistan
I still remember shaking at the departure lounge due to travel anxiety and the nervousness I felt during the whole plane ride. But as soon as I arrived at the airport in Lahore, I was suddenly and unexpectedly surrounded by a warm sense of hospitality from my family members who came there to receive me. Never had I ever felt so comfortable and at ease outside of my home but at that moment. I wore my hijab all the time, outside and inside, and nobody batted an eye. It was after a very long time that I felt comfortable in my own skin and didn’t have to be watchful and hyper-vigilant while crossing the road or performing my daily tasks. I met women who were of the same skin color as me and wore the same headwear, and they boosted my morale to stand firm in the face of resistance. I went shopping with them; I saw abaya shops, lawn hijab shops, and niqab stores that were filled with women shopping freely and confidently for the identity they wanted to carve for themselves.
It was a two-week trip, and when I returned home, I felt rejuvenated and overcome by a strong sense of feminity and kinship. The love and support I received in Pakistan kept me afloat during the trip and also carried me back home. The trip proved pivotal for my identity as a Muslim hijabi woman because it gave me so much confidence and helped reinforce my sense of individuality in a white-dominated environment.
Disclaimer: The privacy of the narrator of this story has been preserved as per her wish. Therefore, it is pen-downed anonymously. It is based on real-life incidents and recounts the events that happened in her life.