Every morning, I wrap my hijab—the headscarf worn by Muslim women—around my head. Just as my skin tone and features mark my ethnic origin as Pakistani, my headscarf marks my religious identity as Muslim. Combined, they make me other in the landscape of America.
Though I’ve always been proud of my identity and its visibility, there’s no denying how scary it can be. Two years ago, terror overtook Muslim communities after the horrific shooting in North Carolina. Last year, an attacker repeatedly struck two Muslim women who were simply pushing their children in strollers on the streets of New York City. This summer, a 17 year old Muslim girl was assaulted and killed after leaving her mosque during the holy month of Ramadan.
Being other means being inundated with these news stories, even as the media hesitates to label them as hate crimes. It also means having your own experiences to supplement the narrative.
I was lucky to be in an accepting community, but I still experienced my fair share of the casual racism that comes with being a person of color in America. It would range from friends telling me, “You don’t even look brown!”, because of my fairer skin (like that was supposed to be a compliment) to total strangers saying that I would end up joining the Islamic State after high school (sorry to disappoint, but I ended up at Harvard instead).
I often felt like all people saw was a brown girl with a scarf on her head. I was tired of small talk revolving around President Donald Trump’s planned ban of Muslims or my opinion on Malala Yousafzai. I hated being on edge, always afraid that my actions would lend support to a Muslim stereotype, tired of having to navigate an identity defined by others.
It seemed like all my otherness brought me was microaggressions and stereotyping. It wasn’t until I came to Harvard, over a year ago now, that I started to realize how much joy it brought me too.
It happened on a Thursday, first semester of freshman year. I was on my way to office hours, when, in the quest for directions, I came across a security guard. We exchanged pleasantries, but then he said something that stopped me.
“Aap kahaan se hain?”
The words, which translate to, “Where are you from?”, were spoken in Urdu, the native language of my parents. Since Urdu was the first language I learned (I couldn’t even speak English until I was three years old), I was thrilled to hear it so unexpectedly.
We had a short conversation—three, maybe four minutes, all in Urdu. I told him about my background and asked about his, and that one interaction made me feel more at home at Harvard than I had felt so far.
I walked into office hours with the most ridiculous smile on my face. And as I giddily related the incident to my parents that night, I started to wonder: How many times has my visible identity brought me in contact with more than casual racism and cringe worthy encounters?
How many times has it brought me joy?
And I realized then how much the little things matter. When I started to wear hijab, I received so many compliments on my colorful scarves—compliments that meant the world to me back then and that still brighten my day now. Walking down the streets of Harvard Square, I’ve had countless strangers say “salaam,” the Islamic greeting, to me—a single word that brings me so much peace. And whenever I have a happenstance conversation in Urdu, whether in a lecture hall or a restaurant, I feel lighter.
Every single one of these interactions was and is joyful. Every single one of them makes me feel a little less other, a little more at home in my surroundings and in my own skin.
The thing is, I’ve never been allowed to see my identity in that way. The discourse is always defensive—dominated by stories of discrimination and feelings of fear. With the rise of post-9/11 Islamophobia, I understand why. The fear and the worry and the pain is real, and so I put my fists up too. After all, in these very pages, I’ve spent the last semester exploring the nuances of my experience, the difficulties of expressing my identity, and the constant shrinking that is forced upon me. I know the weight of being other all too well.
But even as I become more and more wary, constantly aware of the racist remarks around the corner, I know that I must continue to cherish the vibrant beauty that is my identity. These sudden moments of softness, moments that I’ve rediscovered here at Harvard, have reminded me to do that again. These moments show me that maybe I’m not always as other as I feel. That I am not so alone. These moments make my hijab home.
So here’s to honoring my otherness in all its complexity, joy included. And here’s to spending the following days and months and years finding and cherishing those moments of beauty.
Shireen Younus ’20 is a Crimson Editorial editor in Pforzheimer House. Her column appears on alternate Thursdays.