All throughout middle and high school, I was a nerd. Let me correct this: I was a NERD. Capitalized, bolded, and italicized, n. e. r. d. Nerd. Especially in middle school while I was adjusting to the different culture, I was the “good student” for all of the teachers and the “nerd” for everyone else. My oversized shirts and two pig tails did not help much. My English was limited and Spanish, the language I was just being exposed to and the language of nearly everyone in Orlando, was non-existent. In a sea of kids running to and from class I could undoubtedly be distinguished from far away.
I found myself a little during college. My circle of friends changed from being mostly indo-pak to, shall we say, an eclectic mix of colors and beliefs. I was spending time with atheists, with Christians, Catholics and Mormons, with agnostics and polytheists, and with Jewish influences. I was the only Muslim in my circle of friends and needless to say, none of us were practicing what we believed (except for maybe atheists and agnostics?). Upon reflection, even I am surprised on the contrast with today where I prefer to surround myself with more Muslims than before and consider myself to be a practicing one. I feel that the jump from there to here is laced with self-doubt and, quite possibly, even self hatred.
You see, I was always aware of my physical features and I did not like what I saw. In the time when I looked different from everyone else, I did not enjoy what made me different. I did not like being Pakistani brown. I spoke a different way, I ate a different way, I did everything differently during the years when everyone yearns to fit in. Standing out in a positive light was considered risqué much less standing out in a way no one could understand. How can they? Having a fob Pakistani was not in everyone’s experiences. As I grew older and slowly reached maturity in high school, I began to solidify my features. My eyes were small, my nose was large, and let us not discuss the severe lack of body hair on anyone but us South Asians. My eyebrows were thick during the time of thin ones and my arms proudly displayed the trait of my people: hairy and hairy. Later on, I began to fix those differences – threading and waxing became my pathways to a perceived normalcy. My clothes began to fit me a little better, my shopping style began mimicking my peers, and my strong accent slowly began to fade away. While being surrounded with mostly hispanics, I was not confusing the “v”s and the “w”s as much and the harshness of letters typical of a strong Pakistani accent had softened (full disclosure: You will definitely find me mixing those up every now and then). Things were looking good, I was feeling normal. I was feeling like them.
Then, during late university years, just as I was beginning to disappear among the crowd instead of standing out, I began to discover my faith. Before I could blink, I was wrapping a hijab on my head that I had purchased a few hours before. Just like that, I was standing out again. From far away you could see me: The Girl in the Scarf. Some of my friends did not understand that change. I remember returning to my college group and being received with mixed signals. Their glances revealed the thoughts in their minds, “Should I act the same? Should I act different? Should I speak differently? Should I not talk about the things we used talk about?” To top it all of, all of this was a few years after 9/11 and our plunge into the Iraq war, so other people’s reactions ranged from confused to shocked to disgusted.
I was definitely the weird one. Again. I wish I could add that “I was okay with it,” but honestly, I just wished everyone would consider me as being normal. I wished they could see me and not even see the piece of cloth on my head. I did not like looking so brown with my hijab. Before, people used to confuse me with looking hispanic and now they had no doubt that I was an Arab. (For the record of all that is good and sacred, as beautiful as are my fellow Arabs, I am not an Arab, thankyouverymuch). After blending in, I had begun to stand out again. It was different and scary, at the same time my heart was certain of nothing but that this was the right decision for me. I had chosen to wear my hijab for Allah (swt), there was strength with this conviction that no amount of stares could take away.
It was there that I found some stability. In my heart. I knew it was the right decision for me. From then on, it became an upward climb. I began to focus more on what mattered to me. Praying feels right, for me. Marriage to my husband feels right, for me. Eating only zabiha feels right, for me. While before I was focused on what felt right to other people – the color of my skin, my accent, what I wore, what I ate – now I was focusing on myself. If everyone else’s opinion count, then don’t my own count too? And especially when it is about myself, shouldn’t my opinions be given more weight?
It can be said that the first few dollars that I spent buying my hijab actually resulted in me investing into my confidence in myself. It feels strange to say that a piece of cloth can do that but I am sure that I am not the only one. The hijab became my identity and a pathway towards me finding my place in this world just as I was. While before I wanted others to see me rather than my hijab, now I want people to see my hijab before they see me. Another way to say it is to “accept reality” because let’s face it, that is the first thing people see. Now, I became okay with it. I want people to know that I stand for something specific. To know that before anything else, I am a believer of the Unseen. They can ask me regarding that or they can ignore it, they can get to know me as a person or they can walk right by me without any regard to my existence. When I am doing something that feels right to me, then there should not be any reason to be ashamed of it. And when I am who Allah made me to be, then there is no reason to be shameful with a Divine decree. That is where the shift was: In accepting myself rather than being ashamed of who I am and where I came from; seeing myself through my own lens rather than through the eyes of other people.
Man, this still lays heavy on me. Since then, I have embarked on a journey to being me – a Muslim, a Pakistani-American, who eats a combination of asian and western cuisine, who beautifies and embodies modesty in my own way, who loves cats and chickens, who enjoys getting her hands dirty in the garden, who is lazy in may ways and productive in other ways, who is opinionated. Sometimes too opinionated. And lastly, and most importantly, who is unafraid of judgment.
It feel so darn good to say that.