I sit in the same seat of the same bus that I have taken every Monday, Wednesday and Friday for the past few months. I usually spend this time watching the passengers and the way their different lives intersect over unexpected conversations. Sometimes I doze off.
Today, though, my eyes are glued to the photo staring back at me from my phone. A screaming Caucasian woman draped in the European flag is being grappled by the hands of dark-skinned Muslim men. I read the headline: “The Islamic Rape of Europe.”
Maybe it’s the repeated breaks of the city traffic that’s making me feel sick, but a scream catches in my throat.
I want to tell the world that my people are not all bad. Our immigrant fathers are phoenixes arisen from ashes; our brothers are the ones that ride bikes and play Xbox on summer afternoons; our sons are your children’s classmates that never forget to say “thank you” when you offer them a snack.
I wonder if the woman sitting across from me sees the sadness, rage, scorn and helplessness warping my face as the emotions war with each other somewhere inside my chest.
Something is wrong, very wrong.
I am seven. The wooden clock on the kitchen wall reads a few minutes after nine. I look at the front door — there are only three pairs of shoes lined up neatly by the doormat: Nike sneakers, size 10; Anna Klein loafers, size seven; and a girl’s Sketchers, size nine. I’m still waiting for the fourth pair to come home — Apt. 9, dress shoes, size 12.
‘I was afraid,’ he says when I ask him about his journey to America. He tells me about the years he spent working odd jobs and surviving medical school in what was then a foreign country to him. tweet
Meanwhile, Mama swiftly hands me a cup full of milk from the fridge and waits for me to drink it. I can’t stand its rancid smell so I focus on the peeling wallpaper and squeeze my nose shut instead — it’s a trick my Baba taught me. “See,” he had said, “you can’t smell it that way.”
He’s not here to say it this time, though. I glance back at the shoes — there is still an empty space where the size 12 shoes should be.
I gulp down the milk.
Later that night, he will tiptoe into my bedroom and plant a goodnight kiss on my forehead while I pretend to be asleep. I hadn’t noticed it then, but his eyes were sunken and his shoulders slumped from a long day of work.
“I was afraid,” he says when I ask him about his journey to America. He tells me about the years he spent working odd jobs and surviving medical school in what was then a foreign country to him, all while raising a family and financially supporting his mother and sisters whom he left behind in India.
He had worked to the bone for our family.
Suddenly his weary eyes and slow shuffle come into focus. I am 10.
I still can’t peel my eyes off of the cellphone screen. The screaming woman seems to silence the world around me. I read a comment that says rape is an Islamic law, that the entitlement culture is dominant among Muslim men who treat their female counterparts as slaves. “The men think of women this way because that is where they come from, that is what they know”.
On the corner off of Route 1, if your eyes are fast enough, you’ll see an obtrusive golden dome across from the Raceway gas station. The mosque fills to the brim every Friday and nearly overflows during the month of fasting.
He tells me that that from this day forward I need to be strong, independent and hard-working. He tells me to become the lady he raised me to be. tweet
I set my foot down on its parking lot’s cracked cement that is more pot holes than it is even ground. A few days ago, I was accepted into the mosque’s private Islamic school, and although I have lived through nine first days of school, there is a pit in my stomach and I can’t get my legs to stop wobbling. I don’t know what to expect.
That night, I tell my parents that I don’t know how to fit in. But then again, I think to myself, I wasn’t exactly the popular kid at my previous school, either.
Here I was the outcast because of my unusually reserved nature, but back there I was the invisible Indian, not only because I wasn’t the prettiest of the batch, but because the “popular” kids did things that my upbringing (and admittedly my questionable choice in clothing) never allowed me to do.
Here there was no more butt-grabbing. No more of the sex culture where getting laid was akin to winning a game — or “scoring” as they called it.
Everyone was nice here; they treated me like I was normal. I didn’t need a boyfriend to be popular and the boys didn’t mock me for being a prude when I didn’t show off my skin. They treated me kindly and I wondered what was wrong with them.
Looking back, I suspect it took a year to overcome the culture shock that came with transitioning from an all-White, dominantly Christian school, to one with a majority of Middle Eastern, Indian and Pakistani kids of immigrants practicing Islam.
My stop is coming up. I read one last comment before pocketing my phone: It says Muslim men “regard women as inferior.”
It’s graduation day. I realize there is only a span of a few months separating me from my first day as a college freshman and suddenly I feel like my feet are too small and the shoes my brother left behind are only getting bigger.
My tassel hangs from the left side of my cap when my Baba approaches me.
He tells me that that from this day forward I need to be strong, independent and hard-working. He tells me to become the lady he raised me to be.
I nod and see pride illuminating his eyes.
It’s my bus stop and in the back of my mind I’m looking forward to replacing the stiff material of this blazer and tightly buttoned dress pants with a sweatshirt and pair of checkered pajamas. Below my hijab hangs a press pass that I am too lazy to remove.
A man rises to exit the bus at the same time I do. He’s wearing a suit that I suspect is tailored and carries a leather briefcase in one hand while he scrolls through his iPhone with the other.
I nearly snort when I realize that I look oddly like his female counterpart.
I feel relieved to have something else to focus on as I make the trek home to my apartment — like the soreness in my thighs as I painfully drag one foot in front of the other. I really need to work out more often, I think to myself.
Our immigrant fathers are phoenixes arisen from ashes; our brothers are the ones that ride bikes and play Xbox on summer afternoons; our sons are your children’s classmates that never forget to say ‘thank you’ when you offer them a snack. tweet
After cooking dinner, reluctantly washing the dishes and drinking what may be my third cup of unnecessary caffeine, I realize that I’m still not satisfied.
I don’t feel the sense of accomplishment that comes with the end of another long day. Instead, there is something hollow in my chest that is making me increasingly uneasy. It takes me a few minutes of staring at the wall to realize that what I feel is helplessness.
I want the world to finally understand that news headlines do not describe the majority of Muslims. Not all of our men are abusive and entitled rapists with superiority complexes, and being a Muslim woman does not make us any inferior to them or to others.
So I sit at my desk, create a new Word document, and begin to write.
Written by Naaz Modan.