When I decided to put on the hijab, I was 18 years old.
It was the summer of 2015, right before I left for college. It also just happened to be before Donald Trump announced that he was running for president, before Ahmed Mohamed’s arrest, before the hashtag “Stop Islam” trended, before the Muslim Ban made headlines, before countless anti-Islam protests and hate crimes, and certainly before I overheard a professor saying, “it’s a bad time to be a Muslim.”
And even before all of that, I had prepared myself for the worst.
Needless to say, it wasn’t long before wearing a hijab began to feel like I was voluntarily putting a target on my forehead. Walking around campus my first few weeks at Cornell was intimidating to say the least. I remember simultaneously feeling like everyone’s eyes were on me and like nobody wanted to look at me.
All of a sudden, I became hyperaware of the way people interacted with me. When a bus driver looked at me a second longer than everyone else as I swiped my ID card, I noticed. When a TA averted eye contact when I raised my hand, I noticed. When the cashier’s tone changed as I stepped up the register, I noticed. I didn’t get a cheery “hi, how are you today?” or “did you find everything alright?” like the girl before me did. I got a quick glance and a mumbled “that’ll be $4.50.”
But perhaps the most striking memory I have is that of when I interned at one of Ithaca’s independent newspaper offices and my senior editor asked me to write a piece about my experience as a hijab-wearing Muslim at Cornell. I eagerly agreed to do it. In the first draft, I included all of the unpleasant interactions I had ever experienced since putting the hijab on — everything from slurs to stares. I will never forget my editor’s response to it. She finished reading the paper, turned to me and said “It’s well written, but … its really negative. Maybe you should try giving it a positive spin. Are you sure those people weren’t just having a bad day?”
Now, I’m not implying that every single person I interact with on a daily basis is Islamophobic or ignorant. I don’t believe that, and I would go insane if I began to think that way. In fact, I know that most people — like that editor — are well meaning. Perhaps they have never met a Muslim before. Perhaps they’re confused or scared. Honestly, with the way Muslims are portrayed in the media, sometimes I don’t blame them. However, there is undoubtedly a sense of tension, of hesitance and, above all, a sense of uneasiness that should not exist.
We pride ourselves in being citizens of America; we wave flags, shoot fireworks, pledge our allegiance, sing anthems and say “it’s a free country” to justify our opinions and actions. Indeed, this is a free country. But I’ve found that being free does not guarantee tolerance, and it certainly doesn’t excuse intolerance.
While myself and thousands of other Muslim girls have trained ourselves to block out snide remarks, stares and scowls, I wish we didn’t have to. Despite our discomfort with the topic, we have to acknowledge that there is a problem with the way Muslims are treated. Yes, even here at Cornell. College campuses are meant to cultivate thought and intelligent discussion, but when Muslim students are hesitant to do so much as raise a hand, we cannot keep denying that there is some sort of barrier, conscious or otherwise, holding them back. As much as we’d like to blindly uphold the flowery statements about diversity plastered across the university’s homepage, the reality of the situation is that there is a conversation that needs to be had. One that is long overdue.
So the question persists: Is it a bad time to be a Muslim?
To me, the inherent implication in that question is that the problem lies with being Muslim. In reality, the problem lies in our media, in our politics, and in our societal mindset. In saying that it is a bad time to be a Muslim, we are consequently saying that it’s a good time to be ignorant.
So, I leave you with some words of wisdom: there is no need to be wary of your Muslim roommate and nothing bad will happen if you make eye contact with a girl in a hijab. We are not asking to be treated as exceptional; in fact, it’s quite the contrary: we are just asking to be treated like everybody else.
Faiza Ahmad is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Fifth Column runs alternate Wednesdays this semester.