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Modern Prejudice

Wearing a hijab makes you no less American

By Hebah M. Ismail

“Go back where you came from!”

Growing up, I had heard this phrase yelled at me so many times that it shook my faith in being an American. Sometimes I had trouble believing I was really from the United States, born and bred in New Jersey.

After Sept. 11th, I heard renewed demands that I would be better off at “home,” and that I should return there at once. The irony of it all was that most of the yells were almost indiscernible due to thick immigrant accents. From my perspective, I thought I was already home.

But all this I could forgive. It was only natural that people who feel hopeless in the presence of so much loss and suffering would need a way to vent. And I was an easy target. If yelling at me, a Muslim clad in a hijab (an Islamic head scarf), to “go back home” helped people deal with their loss, then by all means, let them yell until their throats got hoarse. By that time, I knew full well that I was an American. A few people yelling at me furtively before I could see their faces was not enough for me to question my identity.

And while all the anonymous “recommendations” did not faze me, one completely casual exchange with a high school teacher did.

During my senior year of high school, a teacher I had known for four years asked me off-hand where I had learned my English. He was so impressed that I managed to rid myself of all traces of an Arab accent. After an awkward pause, as it slowly dawned on me that no, he was not joking, and yes, he really thought I was an immigrant, I had to explain to him that I had been born 10 minutes away from the school building. The reason my English was so accent-less was because I really was an American, even with my hijab on.

Do many people refuse to believe that I cannot be an American simply because I wear a hijab? Sadly, the answer is yes. And I’m not alone.

There are an estimated 7 million Muslims in America of varying ethnic backgrounds. American Muslims can be found in all 50 states, in every walk of life. Many of the women wear hijabs, garb that has attracted a lot of attention, and some of it negative. In 2002, it was estimated that 13 percent of reported discrimination incidents against Muslims involved a woman in hijab.

Part of the problem is that not many Americans know what Islam really is. With so many people claiming to act “in the name of Islam”—including extremists from both sides of the political spectrum—it is hard to know what Islam stands for. And the media does not help. Most mention of Muslims and Islam includes terrorism and oppression.

That is why the Harvard Islamic Society (HIS) has an annual Islam Awareness Week. Over the course of the next week—Feb. 27 to March 5—HIS hopes to give the Harvard community a closer look at our religion. We will try to inform our peers of common misconceptions about Islam. We want to share how our beliefs affect our lives as Americans and Harvard students.

I wear my hijab as I recite the Pledge of Allegiance. I pray in the stacks of Widener. Next time you come across me—or anyone who shares my faith—walking in the yard or having a meal in a dining hall, don’t walk past. Stop and say hi.

Hebah M. Ismail ’07, a Crimson editorial editor, is a psychology concentrator in Eliot House.

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