College Apps: Sure You Want to Say You’re Muslim?

It’s Dec. 8, 2015: The time of year where either many high school seniors are getting ready to send off their college applications or are anxiously waiting for their early decisions on Dec. 15. I am one of them.
As any ambitious high school senior, this year was where I could make it or break it. I had worked hard to get to this point: I was at the top of my class, pursued my passions and felt content with where I was. I tried to do everything right. But I did have fears and insecurities; maybe my test scores were a little low? Did I sound a bit too arrogant in my essay? Did I overlook any grammar mistakes? Normal qualms and concerns.
As I checked my phone last Wednesday, I would have never thought this normal fear of mine would become bigger than ever before — that it may even consume me.
As we all know, another heartless attack took the lives of innocent people in San Bernadino, Calif. When the media had quickly reported that the shooting is suspected to be orchestrated by three strong-built white men, I breathed a sign of relief that it was not in any way connected to Islam or ISIS, but still felt horrible that such events have become commonplace.
A few minutes later, the story had changed for the worse and the shooters were reported to instead be a couple — two Pakistani Muslims who were in some way motivated by ISIS to carry out the attack. By then, 14 people were dead with 17 wounded.
I had by now become pretty numb and hardened by this revelation. At that moment, I thought this attack would have the same affect on me as the Paris shooting. I would once again have to be extra careful in public, crowded places. I was relatively in a pretty safe community and my only fear in that week would be the safety of my friends and family elsewhere.
But when I came home that day ready to resume my college applications, my father came up to me and spoke of an issue I hadn’t really thought about.
“Beta, I was thinking about your college essays and… with the recent shootings, I think you might have to be a little more careful.”
A blank stare.
“I know that your hijab means a lot to you. Maybe you can focus on something else in your essay?”
“It’s not a good time for Muslims. This happened in California — and I know how much you want to go there.”
This question had definitely risen in my mind before but as always, I didn’t think it a huge concern and deemed it ridiculous that a top institution would discriminate against me and deny admission based upon my religious beliefs. But as soon as I saw the grave expression upon my father’s face and his fears and worries for my future, I realized that such a concern could not be put aside any longer.
The shooting and my top choice of school coincidentally happen to be in the very same state of California. Dec. 15 is decision day. Could this have an effect on their decision?
“One of the shooters was a woman. I know we should not read into this, beta, but this is one of the very first times that a shooter has been a woman — a woman with a hijab — like you.” 
Like me. But this woman was someone else. We don’t know the motives behind her killings. For all we know, this attack may or may not have been motivated by ISIS. Does the fact that she wears a hijab mean that she happened to represent the entire female Muslim population? Of course not!
“But do you, even for a second, think they believe that?”
Was I sure I wanted to say I was a Muslim? How do I know that the person reading my application wasn’t a Muslim-hater?
For the first time in my life, my fear of not getting into college was not because of my disabilities but was due to something completely out of my control.
It would be impossible to change my other essays and remove any mention of my identity has a Muslim hijabi woman — it’s everything about me. It encompasses my dreams, motivates my passions, inspires my aspirations. This is why I am a writer for in the first place.
As I pondered over the subject for days and later expressed my fears to my elder Muslim friends and my cousins abroad, they tried their best to assure me that whatever would happen would be for the best. Yet they could not tell me that what I now believed to be true was wrong.
As I reread my essay, I was confident about one thing: I’ve never found the hijab to be a barrier or restriction in acquiring an education. It does not deter me in the slightest that I happen to be the only hijabi in my class. In fact, I play on the school basketball team. I compete in nation-wide science leagues. I debate Model United Nation resolutions. I would represent my class in middle school and later in 10th grade in the student council. I’m a volunteer. A sister. A friend.
And through my journey of wearing the hijab for 10 years in various schools in Washington State, Virginia, Qatar, Dubai and New Jersey, I always strive to prove to myself, my family and to the whole world that a Muslim woman can indeed make it to the top — and there are signs of it abound. Although I will always be disheartened by the negative portrayal of my religion on mainstream media as I am at this very moment, I know that this perception cannot be changed until I do something about it. And because the hijab is indeed something observers can never disregard, I know that there’s a direct link drawn between my actions and my religion.
When most people look at me, their first thought usually is something along the lines of “oppressed female” or “barbaric terrorist.” Therefore, I’m always aware of what I am doing and what I say. I and hundreds of other Muslims are under scrutiny. But we make the most of it.
We would not and could not in a million years sacrifice our identities for what other people conceive. My religion did not condone the attacks and there are bad people in every religion.
The shooter wearing a hijab and myself — we are not the same. She did not represent my religion. She does not represent me.

Image provided by the author.