By Carolyn Bick
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Even when she is surrounded by friends, Rabail Sajjad notices stares from strangers on the street. Usually, though, she doesn’t say anything, even when she is surrounded by her friends, people she knows will have her back.
“It’s really hard to do that when people in power are so easily saying, ‘No, Islam is bad,’” Sajjad said. “I sometimes feel like, what’s the point of even trying? … What’s the point of talking to people about it? I just keep it to myself.”
Sajjad works at the University of Washington’s Diversity Center on campus. The Pakistani American said she was born into Islam, but didn’t start seriously practicing and wearing a hijab until after President Donald Trump took office. Despite the increased climate of Islamophobia, Sajjad said the decision was based on the fact that wearing a hijab “just makes me feel … more like myself.”
“I think, for me, it just helps me feel closer to God. I really love wearing it,” Sajjad said. “I felt really strongly about it in my own beliefs.”
At the same time, though, Sajjad acknowledges wearing a hijab makes life more difficult for her.
“I am very aware of my surroundings now. … I feel like I have to overcompensate, when I meet new people, based on assumptions that they may already have about me,” Sajjad said. “I’ve avoided going to interviews because I hear things about a company, and I am too scared to even go, and so I don’t go. … I feel like I still should have gone, just to see, but sometimes the fear overweighs [that].”
Part of the problem Sajjad sees is that most people don’t understand the teachings of Islam, and how most Muslims practice. “There’s a misconception that we’re secret terrorists.” And as a Muslim woman, Sajjad also sees how people outside the faith have fundamental misunderstandings about what Muslim women are allowed to do.
“Like, we aren’t allowed to go out, and be with our friends. There’s a misconception that women can’t drive, that we aren’t allowed to drive,” Sajjad. “This is one I think of, personally, but no one’s ever said this to me … I think people are afraid of what’s under the hijab. Like, ‘Oh, my gosh, she’s covering her hair. There must be something scary under there.’”
Local imam Adam Jamal believes that much of this misunderstanding comes from “fear-mongering” and the media’s insistence on focusing on “the 0.001 percent” of Muslims who commit violent acts, supposedly in the name of the faith. But, as an imam at the Muslim Association of Puget Sound (MAPS), the Pakistani American knows differently.
“They are trying to live their lives as American Muslims, enjoying the same opportunities as everyone else, and they want to pursue the same opportunities as everyone else,” Jamal said. “Being a part of the greater American fabric is very important to our community.”
Despite the difficulties the Muslim community is currently facing, though, Jamal fundamentally believes in the goodness of the majority. Recently, anonymous flyers went out in the United Kingdom, declaring April 3 “Punish a Muslim Day.” Though his community was afraid, Jamal said they found support in allies who not only vocalized their support, but attended afternoon prayer services to physically stand with the Muslim community.
Still, despite the strength within and around her community, Aneelah Afzali, Director of the American Muslim Empowerment Network (AMEN), said she has suffered verbal abuse when people see her walking down the street wearing her hijab.
Like Sajjad, the Afghan American started wearing a hijab about two years ago, but her “spiritual transformation” came four years prior, after reading the Quran cover to cover, during Ramadan.
The more she studied her religion, the more she fell in love with it, she said. And given the timing of her religious awakening, she also believes her path in Islam happened by “divine guidance,” so that she could help stand against politically sanctioned hatred she sees happening all around her.
“We are seeing it in hate crimes, we are seeing it in bullying, we are seeing it in policies and proposals, in rhetoric, and all of this,” Afzali said. “I try to counter that narrative of fear and misinformation with a narrative of faith over fear, of love over hate, of fact over fiction.”
Afzali said that even though it can be “an emotional burden” to constantly have to work to prove her own humanity, in the face of ignorance and hatred, it’s a burden she gladly bears, because of what Islam has brought to her own life.
“Islam teaches and preaches peace, and mandates peace, and … the word Islam comes from the word meaning, ‘peace,’” Afzali said.
Jamal also said it’s important to remember that Islam is not new to America. “Muslims have been in this country for centuries. Actually, a great percentage … of slaves that were brought here from Africa, they were actually Muslim, and they were forced to convert from their religion.”
“Thomas Jefferson owned a Quran … which you can find in the Library of Congress,” Jamal said.
“And the first country to recognize the United States was Morocco, which was a Muslim-majority country. So, Muslims have been a part of this country’s beginnings, and we are going to continue to be here.”
Carolyn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.