My sixth grade class was in the computer labs when the news of Osama bin Laden’s death spread all over the internet. Students in my class joked about it to me, saying things like, “Oh, look! Your uncle got shot!” At the time, I was shocked to hear these comments from people who were supposed to be my friends. Even looking back on that day, it never fails to surprise me that kids at of 11 or 12 could hold such prejudice. Of course it wasn’t their fault: When kids grow up hearing things like this from people they respect—parents, teachers, TV pundits—they tend to behave in the same way and believe it’s OK. But even with that rationale, I still can’t believe I had to endure that at 12 years old. I can’t even begin to imagine what I would do if somebody had said that to my little sister!
I attended elementary and middle school in a town in Nebraska that consisted of a majority of white Christians. Often, I was one of the only Muslim girls in my class or school, and in middle school I started hearing offensive jokes about my religion—specifically connecting Islam to terrorism. The June before my sophomore year, my family and I moved to Dallas, Texas. I was sad to move, but we had a lot of family friends in the area, and it was generally more populated with other Pakistani Muslims. I came to agree with my parents that it would be a better place for me and my sisters to grow up, and to connect with our religion and culture. I assumed that the ignorant, anti-Muslim remarks would fade, since there were so many more Muslims and Pakistanis in Dallas. In fact, they seemed to occur more often. That, or I was becoming more aware of what was going on around me, and recognizing anti-Muslim sentiment behind the things people said and behaved toward me and my family.
Before I’d even started school in Dallas, I had two brief encounters over the summer that made me fear what the kids at my new school would be like, after seeing how some of the people in my town acted toward Muslims. I’m not a hijabi—a girl who wears an Islamic head covering on a daily basis—however on the occasions that I went outside wearing one, I could clearly feel the difference in the way I was treated. A month after the move, I went to a fundraiser at my mosque dressed in a hijab and an abaya. After the fundraiser, my older sister and I stopped at Walgreens. As we entered, the customers paused their conversations to look at what I was wearing, and many of them were outright staring. At the checkout, I wasn’t asked how I was, and I wasn’t told to “Have a good day!” like the others in line before me were. There was just an awkward moment of silence, while the cashier eyed us with disapproval. I got back into the car completely confused. Why were we still being treated differently in a city with such a huge Muslim population?
A couple of weeks later, my younger sister and I went to our neighborhood Walmart dressed in conservative Muslim clothing, having just come from the mosque. When we walked up to a checkout lane, I noticed the cashier looking stressed out before rushing away from her station. Moments later, when she returned with the store manager, we figured out it was because without even attempting to talk to us, she’d assumed I didn’t speak any English. It was incredibly shocking. I was probably only a year younger than her; I was born in the U.S., and had lived here just as long as she had. I had grown up in much the same way she had. I was just as much of an American as she was. It’s so frustrating to realize that the way you are dressed, and the way you look can make such a tremendous difference in the way you are valued as a person.
During my sophomore year, I encountered a handful of students who made me aware that it doesn’t matter where you live, Islamophobia is everywhere. A girl in my geography class threw ignorant remarks at me and another Pakistani boy, insulting our culture and religion. She also tweeted a photo of her and her friend, in which they had tied their hair beneath their chins to resemble a long beard—similar to what some Muslim men wear—and captioned the photo, “Look, we’re terrorists!” Students at our school saw the post and confronted her, and she ended up taking the photo down, but that didn’t change what she had said. What she didn’t understand is that terrorists aren’t just one group of people. They don’t have one identity. They could look just like her.
That same year, I learned that just because someone is friends with a Muslim, doesn’t mean they can’t be anti-Muslim. A friend who is also a Muslim and I were often targeted by the ignorant comments of a non-Muslim girl in our friend group. She thought that she could use the excuse that she had two Muslim friends to justify what she called “jokes.” She once asked my friend if she was related to Osama (a great friend, right?!), and she continued to mock our religion over the course of our friendship. Eventually, we realized that she was not somebody we wanted to hang out with. I deleted her number and nurtured my friendships with other people, who I’m still friends with today. I’m so glad that I realized that girl was anti-Muslim, and cut her off! Friends are supposed to support and love you for who you are, not judge you for every little thing that makes you different from them. True friends are the people that you can confide in when you are upset, not the source of your misery.
Not long after, one of my Muslim friends decided to start wearing a hijab to school. How she chose to dress shouldn’t have been anybody else’s business, but she was constantly harassed by peers about why she had made this decision. Even some of her own friends made comments that made her feel uncomfortable for simply dressing the way she chose. One girl told her that she “looked like a pilgrim.” Only hijabi girls will truly understand the confidence it takes to wear a hijab to school. It’s not like getting a bad haircut, or coming to school without any makeup. It comes along with a level of incomprehensible scrutiny and judgement. You get treated differently every single day, and are questioned by people assuming that your religion is oppressing you, when most hijabis are hijabi by choice.
Earlier this year, a girl asked me after the Paris attacks, “What does ISIS even want from us?” Of all the people in class, she assumed that I would have information about a terrorist group because I’m Muslim. To associate all Muslims with extremist groups makes no sense at all. There are violent people from every religion. Muslims—all 1.6 billion of us—are routinely labeled terrorists, while in the U.S., white people commit hundreds of hate crimes against minorities every single year. It would be weird to blame all Christians or all white people for the extremist crimes people of their group have committed, so why blame all Muslims?
I look back at my experiences of Islamophobia in the U.S. and I hope that non-Muslim Americans will soon realize that our differences in religious belief should not impact the way we are treated. This isn’t to say that everyone in America hates Muslims—I have met so many lovely people over the years and made so many friends who don’t see me, or any Muslims as anything less than them. I hope that no one faces discrimination because of their beliefs or culture, but if you have, let other people’s ignorance motivate you to keep doing you. That way, you can be proud of yourself for staying true to who you are, and never belittling your culture or beliefs for the sake of anyone else. We have just as much right to express ourselves as any other teen. And what makes us different from others is also our strength. ♦