“Don’t leave the States,” a friend texted me, in the hours after the messy implementation of Donald Trump’s travel ban filled my social media feeds with stories of detentions, protest, and uncertainty. He was worried that my Palestinian and Muslim roots would potentially turn my life into another one of the nightmares we were reading about — hours spent detained at airports, fielding questions about Islam.
But I know that I’m safe: The blue passport my parents fought for me to have does not reveal my heritage — since I was born in the US. And I don’t look the way airport security guards expect Arabs or Muslims to look: My hair is mousey and brown, my eyes hazel, my skin pale.
It’s my full name that raises eyebrows: Sara Maher Yasin, most of it foreign in American mouths. My father — who also passes for white — has the same experience with airport security: They are chatty and at ease until they see “Yasin.” It’s a name that triggers the awkward silence in which someone decides whether or not you’re a threat.
Now this will be just a moment’s discomfort, and nothing more. But in the days when I wore hijab, airport security was more stressful: There was Stuttgart in Germany, where a security guard gruffly asked me to fish out a suspicious object from my giant backpack (it was a very dangerous lipstick-shaped pen). There was Barcelona, where one man smirked as he forced me to show him my hair — and I later realized that my hair color wasn’t even mentioned on my passport or shown in my photo. In Philadelphia, I remember an agent lingering on my ponytail as she patted down my head. Exasperated, I said, “It’s just hair.”
In the days after I decided to stop wearing hijab, I remember weaving through crowds, feeling drunk on my invisibility. There was an ease that came with my perceived whiteness: The world seemed more polite. Fewer people were rude to me, fewer people stared, no one asked where I was "really from" or marveled at the fluency of my English.
Being perceived as white meant my citizenship was no longer casually called into question. I did not have to prove that I was American; I just was. But the biggest change, when I decided to stop wearing hijab almost seven years ago, was this: I realized I didn’t have to be so nice all the time.
Finally, I could be short with a commuter who refused to move away from the train doors; I could yell at street harassers or push past slow walkers without worrying about how it would impact a stranger’s perception of all of the nearly 2 billion Muslims on Earth. I was suddenly viewed as an individual — and any rudeness on my part was mine alone. But the real question is, why wasn’t that true before?
I started wearing hijab at 14, just a few short months before the fall of the Twin Towers, and during the course of the eight years that I covered, it seemed to mark me as point person for anything and everything involving Islam. I had strangers yell “raghead” at me and approach me to argue about Islam, merely because I was visibly identifiable as a Muslim. It didn’t occur to me that I could not answer questions. When my high school classmates asked me about Osama bin Laden or al-Qaeda, I didn’t think to say, “Well, actually, my knowledge of Middle Eastern politics is pretty thin, because I’m a 15-year-old girl, and you’re perhaps better off asking me about Justin Timberlake’s favorite food.”
At the time I was living in Raleigh, North Carolina’s capital, and I always felt the pressure to go above and beyond Southern politeness in responding to this kind of bigotry. My mother would constantly remind me, “Sara, when people see you in hijab, you are representing Islam.” And whether I liked it or not, she was right.
I knew that in many cases I was the first Muslim someone had interacted with, and maybe even the only one they ever would. So I exaggerated my thanks to those who held doors open for me; I was polite when cashiers were rude to me or assumed that I could not speak English. The first time a preacher on my college campus pointed me out during one of his fiery sermons and yelled that I was going to hell, I cried and ran into the library. I would go out of my way to answer even the most ridiculous and invasive questions — “Do you wear that in the shower?” or “So, when will your marriage be arranged?” — with patience.
Whenever I did or said something that didn’t match up with whatever people expected of someone wearing hijab, I was inevitably asked why my behavior didn’t mirror that of other covered Muslim women on campus, as if we were all mindless cells in the same organism. Each spring while I was in college, I worked at a camp for high school students from North Carolina’s most underprivileged areas. Every year, at least one of them would confess that I had changed their perception of Muslims. One student came up to me and said, “Before I met you, I thought all Muslims were terrorists because of what I saw on TV.”
I had to smile, to be polite, to dissolve the hostility of those who thought Muslims were savage, alien creatures. I had to accept the explanation that these incidents were either less significant than they felt or just evidence of one individual’s ignorance — and that it was my responsibility to change their minds. I was never supposed to see them as the product of all the vehement anti-Muslim narratives in pop culture and the news that helped justify the surveillance and arrests our communities experienced in the aftermath of 9/11. Over and over again, my non-Muslim friends told me to brush these things off because they didn’t really see them as part of a bigger, systematic inequality: That would have meant thinking about what role they had in changing it.
I stopped wearing hijab not long after I moved to the UK for graduate school — and when I made visits back to North Carolina, people seemed more at ease with me. Strangers didn't stare at me as I walked down the street, and friendly chatter no longer involved every second-generation American's favorite question: “So, where are you really from?” My day-to-day interactions with strangers are now, for the most part, unmemorable. I don’t have to brace myself for the potential for unpleasant experiences when I walk out of the house — something that was a huge emotional burden. And I eventually realized that the old, hostile interactions that had become a normal part of my daily life all had the same underlying message: Why are you here?
Even though I am, in many ways, the same person — just as American as I ever was before — the need to prove anything has evaporated. And the more I’ve thought about it, the longer I’ve spent noticing the difference, the more I start to feel angry that it took setting aside the symbol of my community and my heritage in order to be accepted in the country where I’ve struggled to feel at home for so long.
When I was in hijab, I was regularly asked to explain terror attacks or apologize for them. I would dismiss what people saw on television as a few bad members of a large group — but in truth, I never saw the logic in using Islam alone as a way to explain terrorism. To understand the extremism of groups like the Taliban or al-Qaeda, why wouldn’t we talk about history or politics instead?
It is a silly notion to make a judgment call about almost 2 billion people at once, and even stranger to decide that a group’s collective “goodness” is somehow a valid prerequisite for recognizing their basic rights. But for Muslims in the US — or really any other marginalized community or group — there’s no room in mainstream perception for diversity, or god forbid, complexities.
Even insisting that all Muslims are good, or explaining what Islam really means, helps reinforce the same bad idea: that it is valid to talk about all Muslims in the same breath. Take Van Jones’ viral moment on CNN, where he fought against the negative perception of Muslim Americans. “If a Muslim family lived next door to you you’d be the happiest person in the world,” he said during the segment. But do Muslim families really need to be friendly to their neighbors in order to justify speaking out against their rights being curtailed?
Even during the presidential election, Hillary Clinton’s campaign was criticized for countering Trump’s anti-Islam rhetoric by pressing on the value of Muslim Americans in the fight against of extremism. Are Muslims only of value in the US if they’re contributing to national security?
The same questions came to mind following the aftermath of Trump’s immigration ban. The narrative of evil infiltrators has been central to Trump’s arguments around both the wall along the US border with Mexico and “extreme vetting” of Muslim immigrants. In making a case for refugees having their rights recognized, we see stories go viral about them being kind and generous, despite facing the most brutal hardships. We see memes reminding us that Steve Jobs was the son of a Syrian immigrant.
But why is any of this relevant? There are plenty of refugees with terrible personalities and habits, who will never go on to become billionaires. That doesn’t make them any less deserving of securing asylum or escaping war. Acknowledging a refugee’s internationally recognized rights should not be contingent on how “good” they are or whether or not they might be responsible for creating the next iPhone. Seeing Muslims as humans or fellow citizens should not depend on how polite they are or whether or not they conform to your image of an American. A woman in niqab should be able to get testy with an airline ticket agent without homeland security getting involved. That’s the world I want to live in.
One of the post-9/11 dead horses is the question “Is Islam a religion of peace?” — and while many well-meaning pundits scramble to answer “yes,” my answer is “It doesn’t matter.” This question doesn’t solve the riddle of ending terror in the name of religion: All it does is place Muslims in the unfair, uncomfortable position of answering this question with everything that they do.
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