“You know, professor, it wasn’t easy for us to send Claire to Jordan to study. We thought it was a dangerous place with what is happening in Israel and the whole region. You know! But she eventually succeeded in persuading us.”
“Believe me” I said. “I’m sure you will find many Arab parents who will tell you the same about sending their kids to the West these days.”
This was not the first time an American parent had confessed his or her fears to me about sending a child to study abroad here in Jordan. It was, however, the first time I gave such a straightforward reply.
I, myself, have long dreamed of finishing my studies in the United States. For so many years, I pictured myself enjoying the resources of a U.S. university, traveling the country, and learning more about America’s diversity, including its Muslim communities. I looked forward to feeling independent and confident as a young Arab woman living on her own, meeting people of different backgrounds, and having an active role in the American Muslim community.
“It would be a wonderful experience,” I thought.
But now, I’m not so sure. Although my plans to pursue academic and professional opportunities in the United States have not changed yet, I would be lying if I said that my parents and I won’t be concerned for my safety and wellbeing if I do go.
America, along with much of the rest of the West, has become a place of confusion, double standards, and injustice for Muslims, particularly women who wear the traditional head covering, or hijab. Some of my close friends have had to choose between taking off their hijabs and feeling safe or keeping them on and becoming a target of bigotry, hatred, and, in some cases, murder.
When hijabis feel they must invent inconspicuous headscarf styles or take off their hijab in order to avert physical harm in Western countries, we should all be concerned.
For my own part, during my various visits to the United States from 2013 to 2014, I cannot say that all my experiences as a hijabi were bad. My headscarf opened conversations with curious people. If there were those who didn’t like what they saw, it seemed they largely kept it to themselves.
When one man awkwardly approached me as I sat with my non-hijabi friends, I couldn’t help but laugh at his comment. “She (pointing to me) looks very traditional, but you don’t,” he said to my friend. “We don’t typically look like you, but mostly like your friend here,” he added, looking in my direction.
“Typically?” I remember asking. “Can you tell me what a typical American should look like these days?” I asked, looking him straight in the eye. He never answered my question. At the time, it felt good to stand up for who I am. The mainstreaming of Islamophobia makes me wonder whether my reaction would be the same now.
According to London Metropolitan Police statistics, from 2014 to 2015 hate crimes against Muslims in London increased by 70 percent. In the six months following the Charlie Hebdo attack, there was a 23.5 percent spike in Islamophobic acts in France, according to the Collective Against Islamophobia. A YouGov poll conducted in March of 2015 found 55 percent of surveyed Americans had an “unfavorable” opinion of Islam.
It is Muslim women who are most often caught in the crosshairs of anti-Muslim hate crimes around the globe; as the 2015 London Metropolitan Police statistics found, 60% of attacks against Muslims were against women. An overwhelmingly number of these victims were wearing a hijab when they were attacked.
What used to be seen as a symbol of “Eastern” oppression has now become fodder for Western violence against Muslim women. As one British Muslim woman told The Telegraph: “People grab our veils, call us terrorists and want us dead.”
It can be complicated to explain to people what it means to wear the hijab. No matter how hard I try, I can’t seem to convey it well. This piece of fabric, worn by millions of women around the world is, namely, home. It is a choice of happiness, a choice of a long-lasting relationship with the Divine, a sense of belonging to something bigger than yourself.
So do me a favor the next time you see a hijabi passing by: look closely and see the beauty, the strength, the caring, and the contentment. Here is a Muslim woman who, despite the backlash she faces every day and the terrifying anti-Muslim attacks she reads about every morning, walked out wearing her headscarf, courageously aware of the danger hiding around any corner, but having faith in humanity still. The next time you walk by her, salute her and be thankful that she exists.