I didn’t do it for you, I did it for me

I started taking the hijab when I first began high school. No one forced me to adopt it. My sisters don’t cover their heads, and, in fact, my extended family despised me for a period of time for trying to be “too Muslim” and not fashionable. Needless to say, I defied them. Since a very young age, I have been encouraged by my parents to make my own decisions and also face their consequences. So I did.

When I sat down to write this column, I thought about how the meaning of hijab has changed for me over the ten years I have adorned it. Initially, it was out of pure convenience. I could just take it and not worry about bad hair days. It was a period in my life where you had to look pretty, and I had the privilege to just opt out of that. In later years, as I started developing my own identity, it became increasingly important to me that people pay attention to my ideas, not my face. I wanted to make something of myself and the hijab was perfect. I could dictate my position as I wanted. Damn, it felt powerful.

I went to Norway for my last years of high school to attend one of the fifteen United World Colleges. In those teenage years, I wanted to defy everything: all the stereotypes that society projected on me—that saw me as a weak, oppressed Muslim woman. I wanted to rebel against all of that. I wanted to prove to myself that I could be a leader, that I could make decisions, talk to men, navigate the world we live in, and be respected as an individual. At UWC, I was enabled to take advantage of real opportunities. My identity was not limited to a scarf-wearing poster child for all the Muslims in the world—I was a person.

A natural question after reading all of this is: why change all of that now? For two years at Colby College, I have tried to reconcile the many sides of my identity. As a freshman, I worked to build the Multi-faith Council because I saw interfaith dialogue to be paramount in understanding the world around us. I furthered my own understanding of Islam and Muslim women by taking relevant courses. I talked to as many people as I could, explaining to them what the hijab is and what it is not. I worked with Sodexo to get Halal and Kosher food on campus simply because I considered it imperative that students feel supported, nurtured, and at home. I also felt there was a need for more student representation from the Muslim world, so I talked to admissions to pay attention to that aspect when selecting students.

Of course, all of this has taken a toll on me. I don’t want to be a poster child for the 1.3 billion Muslims around the world. This is not what I signed up for when I came to Colby College.

I did not sign up for being told, “Go back to Saudi Arabia” during my first week of being here. This summer, I decided that my own relationship with God was worth more than discussing the political ideology of the hijab or educating people for something they could simply search for on Google. It was worth more than convincing some women that I am not oppressed. It was worth more than being randomly screened at airports. It was worth more than being stared at in Walmart. In the words of James Baldwin, nothing around me was built for me, so I decided I was worthy of rising above all of that. I am worthy and I have decided to put my foot down.

Having said all of this, what do I want from you? I want you to understand that the hijab is an experience: it exists on the inside as well as on the outside. Now that my outward hijab is gone, people approach me a lot more. Boys tell me how much they like this change. I don’t need this validation from you. I also don’t want you to touch my hair or twirl me around like a little girl.

For me there is no difference in the Sarah then and the Sarah now. I am the same; the binary exists in your head. I want you to blur that binary. You have not liberated me. You have not saved me. I want you to understand that. Do not pity me. Instead, open your mind. Push yourself to learn. Read outside of the mainstream media, be critical thinkers. I want to see that you tried, that you are not apathetic. Don’t fail me, Colby.

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