I adopted the hijab on August 15, 2001, less than thirty days before 9/11.
I was only twelve and in the seventh grade, and before I adopted the hijab no one knew I was Arab or Muslim. In adopting the hijab so close to 9/11, I was basically putting on a bull’s-eye every morning.
Kids at school knew nothing but what they heard from their parents or on the news. All of us were so young, and while now I understand the anger, the pain, the hatred, and the media-frenzy of misinformation that us kids were surrounded by, at the time I simply felt I was being bullied. As kids, none of my classmates were fully responsible for the Islamophobia that surrounded them, but some took things a step too far: these were children suffering from trauma, but some decided to act as though I was just a trigger, and a target, for their anger, rather than someone suffering through our nation’s tragedy like everyone else.
Kids threw food at me, shouted “terrorist” and grabbed at my hijab or my clothes, said things like “towel-head” or “burqa-baby.” After a particular incident in which I punched a kid, repeatedly, when he tried to yank my hijab away and failed, I asked him why he had done it.
“I don’t know,” he said. He really didn’t.
He had no idea he had been so influenced to hate and fear a girl he had played soccer with for two years; he only knew that he was a scared kid in a country that had recently been attacked, and to him–to many people–I represented a religion and a culture shrouded in mystery.
I represented the unknown, the danger that had changed everything and defined a generation of Americans. He apologized, the most sincere and honest apology a twelve-year-old can give. What he had done was wrong. He had taken me–a fellow child grieving the loss of 3,000 of our countrymen–and blamed me for an act of terrorism entirely unrelated to me and to my practice of Islam.
The bullying didn’t end with children at school. People on highways tried to drive my family off the road. Sporting American flags on their windows, they shouted things like “Go back where you came from” as they sped dangerously close to our car. Grown men spit at me or shouted things from across the street. Women in grocery stores stared at my hijab and asked if someone was making me wear it.
Islamophobia is not over for me, and it is not over for thousands of Muslim Americans (and people who just “look like” Muslim Americans).
Recently, a woman identified in court documents only as only as K.A. was assaulted on board a Southwest flight by fellow passenger Gill Payne, as he shouted “Take this off, this is America,” while pulling off her hijab.
Reading of this incident, I was reminded of all the times I have been verbally or physically attacked because of my hijab. Like my classmates at school, the individual who assaulted Ms. K.A. is undoubtedly afraid, and filled with a misdirected hatred that, coupled with a lack of knowledge about Muslims and Islam led him to commit this act.
When information about Muslims is so readily available, when Muslims are constantly reaching out from our Mosques and into our communities, such an attack seems to be a cocktail of willful ignorance, anti-Muslim propaganda, and unresolved feelings of trauma and mistrust.
Such an act of violence and hatred is not only extremely discompassionate, it is, per our Constitution, entirely un-American.
However, when members of the government are calling for patrolling of Muslim neighborhoods, when the media demonizes all of us in stating that Islam itself is a terrorist ideology, when fear and hatred are perpetuated everywhere, is it any wonder private citizens do not think of us as Americans? Is it any wonder people like Mr. Payne are assaulting our sisters? Is it any wonder our children are still bullied in school? How can we end the cycle of fear, hatred, and violence?
In order to pose a potential answer to that question, let me tell you about a kid named Stefan Fowler.