Hot lights hit my face as I entered from the wings. The old high school stage squeaked when I walked on. The sound of my heels echoed through the auditorium. I made way to my spot marked with an “X.” There were five contestants, including myself. We stood in a line, equidistant from each other. The singing competition was called “Oh Say Can You See: American Teen Voices.” I was nervous. With so many cameramen around us, one mistake could ruin everything. I was the main focus, but not because of my voice. We faced a panel of four judges who had our headshots. Mine wasn’t real. I had taken it only a few hours earlier because my real one would have given us away. “It’s your turn Kashish,” I heard them say to me. I opened my mouth and sang.
I only ever wear a head covering when I pray, but the first time I wore a hijab in public was when I was eighteen years old. It was on NBC’s Dateline special “My Kid Would Never Do That: Discrimination,” where I sang in front of a panel of four judges featuring two actors and two unsuspecting teens. The goal of the show was to prove that speculation can influence people’s perception of individuals. In this episode, the actors were supposed to coax the teenagers into thinking I was a terrorist because of my hijab. The actors were forced to say things like “She’s un-American,” and “Why does she have to wear that thing on her head? Her dad could be a terrorist.” I chose to do the show because I wanted people to know Islamophobia does exist. In reality, the show only confirmed the media’s assertion that wearing a hijab meant that the American people automatically labeled me as a terrorist.
In Arabic, hijab means screen or curtain. It also refers to a headscarf that is worn exclusively by Muslim women. It is a tool that Muslim women use to show their devotion to the religion and to privatize their sexuality. To maintain their modesty, women who wear a hijab (also known as hijabis) usually wear clothes that cover their arms and legs as well. Women dressing modestly and covering their heads is not only common practice in Islam, but amongst many religions including Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, etc. A misconception aimed at hijabis is that they are forced to wear them. This is simply not true. It’s not mandated by the Qur’an to wear a hijab specifically, but it prescribes modest dressing for both males and females. Wearing a hijab is a choice that women can make at any time in their lives. Many people get confused about the head covering because they don’t know how to separate a country’s law, religious law and cultural practices. In Saudi Arabia, women are required to cover their heads and bodies, while in other countries with large Muslim populations wearing a hijab is not required. A distinction between religious law and cultural practices is important to make when discussing hijabs.
As a non-hijabi raised in the post-9/11 era, I’ve witnessed a lot of negativity toward my religion. The first time I experienced intolerance was right after the attacks when my family received death threats from an unknown number. My parents immediately called the local police and they stayed outside our house to protect us for a couple of days. I was only seven. Another wave of intolerance came from my own peers. I remember speaking to a couple of friends during lunch and telling them I was Muslim. One of them exclaimed, “So you’re a terrorist, right?” I was ten years old.
This would not be the last time I heard someone ask me if or why Muslims had terrorist ideologies and whether or not I believed in them. All throughout middle school, high school and college, people would always ask, “If Islam is so peaceful, why do they do kill people?”
To these people, I answered, “Religion is peaceful, but some people aren’t. Religion shouldn’t be blamed for an individual’s crimes.”
More recently, a man decided to stop in front of my cab on the highway and scream “F**k you, Jihad!” at both the driver and myself. Humiliated and shocked, I cried the whole cab ride home. I was not wearing a hijab during any of these encounters.
In the wake of the attacks in Beirut, Paris, Buhari and Baghdad, I decided to make my faith visible by wearing a hijab in public again. I wanted to test the notion that wearing a hijab would bring negativity toward the woman wearing it. This time I wouldn’t be under the safety blanket of a scripted TV show with controlled outcomes. I was extremely nervous about this experiment because Islamophobia always rises after major terrorist attacks. My family members, too, were apprehensive about this experiment. They feared something would happen to me, so I decided I would only wear my hijab for four days. I recorded my thoughts via Snapchat, so people could live the experience with me.
I expected a reaction from people on the first day. Many were still reeling over the recent Paris attacks, which happened just days before. I had a response prepared: “My religion is peaceful. If you care to learn more about this peace, read the Qur’an.” The first place I walked to was a coffee shop, where I had a meeting with friends. They were confused at first to see me in a head covering, but immediately showed their support once I told them what I was doing. They wanted me to keep them updated throughout the week. Later that day, I walked into class and told my peers about the experiment. They wished me luck too. This warmth and support continued throughout the remaining three days. People not only showed their support in person, but through social media by sharing, liking and commenting on a picture I posted explaining the experiment. I received Snapchats and messages from people who I hadn’t spoken to in years that encouraged me to continue spreading my message. Not once was I greeted with an ounce of hatred. From strangers to classmates, I felt like more people smiled at me than ever before. After experiencing such an overwhelming amount support from people, my perspective had completely changed. Wearing a hijab didn’t encourage hatred, but rather invited acceptance.
Two weeks after my social test, a couple opened fire at a holiday party at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, California. They claimed to be Muslim-Jihadist and then killed 14 people. A new wave of Islamophobia surged throughout the United States as a result. Politicians led the anti-Islamic rhetoric by suggesting a temporary ban on Muslims entering the United States. The media was in a frenzy, focusing their attention on the killers’ distorted Islamic values.
For so many years, the American media has only aimed negativity at Muslims. Why do we further publicize the negative rhetoric that only a handful of people express? Why do we over-sensationalize these headlines week after week by rewarding hateful people with primetime coverage? We skip over stories such as “Local Mosque Holds Vigil for Victims of San Bernardino Shooting” because they are not thrilling or inflammatory. We’re being fed sensationalized news on a daily basis that disregards our society at large. This is done to such an extent that the media makes me and countless other Muslim-Americans believe that wearing a hijab would bring us harm. My family and friends believed, due to a media-rich diet, that I would be persecuted for this act of self-expression, despite living in a city rich with diversity and culture.
Ending hate, discrimination, and violence would be easier if we stopped consistently advertising it. Our media landscape has shown the world that even one of the most diverse countries can breed intolerance. These feelings only belong to a small percentage of the American population subscribing to an “us-versus-them” mentality. No one will ever get a full picture of what is actually happening if we continue to paint every person with the same brush. There are many Americans, like my classmates, friends and professors, who are fighting against Islamophobia and are incredibly supportive of Islam. These people won’t make it onto television screens at night. If media outlets use their time and resources to educate people and fight demagoguery that instills animosity toward minority groups, then we could all live in a less fearful and more understanding America.
Kashish is a senior majoring in music industry at Drexel University. She is singer/songwriter and is currently working her second EP, “With Love,” set to release in Spring 2016.