I am a 19-year-old Muslim-American woman living in the American South. I care deeply about people and seek to create harmony in the relationships I have with them. I was born in Egypt, but moved to Finland when I was only two months old, and lived there for the first six years of my life before moving to the United States. I was brought up as a mixture of Egyptian and American, always aiming to never lose touch with my Egyptian heritage and all of my family that lives there.
My close-knit family is my safety net; I am the most comfortable and content when I am with them. I am the middle child between an older brother and younger sister, and I am the one that most actively works to keep touch with the other hyphenated aspect of my identity on a deeper level. I value my family, I value uniqueness and diversity, and I work to always maintain both aspects in the special mixture that is my identity.
I am passionate about becoming someone who is able to incorporate my experiences and my beliefs into a lifestyle. I am passionate about equality, justice, and freedoms, and am not afraid to voice those beliefs through my writing. However, I suffer from bad anxiety, something I have dealt with all of my life. That anxiety presents itself in the form of difficulty in speaking in public settings – whether it be a presentation for a hundred people, a meeting, or just a discussion in a classroom. This anxiety is something that has hindered me in being able to fully advocate for myself and voice my concerns in settings outside of the Internet. I am a complex person, and often times I have trouble understanding myself. When I was in the seventh grade, I decided to start wearing the hijab (head scarf), and my life has not been the same since. I believe that my life experiences and passionate beliefs have shaped me into the social work student I am today.
This might sound like the cliché-Muslim thing to say, but my life is everything but cliché. My experiences, my childhood, my complex emotions, they are all things that make what I am about to say, all further from cliché and further from normal. My kind of unordinary was painful and disturbing; unordinary meant secrets, and secrets meant distress and bottled up emotions. But exposure meant pain, and a disturbance in the flawless image, however false and superficial, I had built up for myself. Exposure meant too many things that were too difficult to think about, and so memories were blocked. Despite my feelings of shame, I knew I could control my image, I knew that I deserved to be respected, I knew that I wasn’t a bad person, and I knew that I needed the help and assurance of a higher power in my life.
That is why my choosing to wear the headscarf, the hijab, was a critical point in my life. I had always planned to wear it at some point as a religious obligation, but when and why was up to me. Overseas, Egyptian culture was very passive to the hijab; the decision isn’t personal and meaningful as much as it was just a normal fashionable addition to their attire. Overseas, it was almost embarrassing not to wear one when all your friends were. I knew I wanted my decision to be deeper and more meaningful; this was a life-long relationship, a commitment, and a seemingly hard one for someone living in America.
The difficulties I had endured thus far caused me to desire respect, self-content, modesty, and a cause to be a part of. I refused to let my body be a source of judgment or of potential respect. I made the decision that I would earn my respect from society through my words, my thoughts, and my actions. I would use the struggles I had endured as a source of empowerment and opportunity. I finally had a cause to work for. I finally had a purpose as a Muslim-American. I would continuously work to prove media wrong, to clear up misconceptions, to fight oppression and bring a voice to the voiceless, all while fulfilling a religious duty and a personal desire to respect my body and leave the past in the past.
In order to cope with the challenges and anxieties that were prevalent in my life that were seemingly out of my control, I decided to take control of what I was capable of and build a sense of self-esteem in order to feel competence, self-worth, and respect. I believed that I was controlling how society perceived me; I believed that with the hijab I was demanding that society respect me for my thoughts and not for my body. I knew that it would be difficult, but I didn’t perceive the ways in which it would affect me psychologically, how words could pierce me. I didn’t realize the constant struggle and responsibility a piece of cloth carried. I didn’t realize how all of the microaggressions, the pin-pricks, the slurs and stares, would build up, and how that would impact me.
I was naïve to the neon sign I had wrapped around my head and the ways in which society would incessantly judge me, especially living in post-9/11 America. I underestimated the severity of the situation; I didn’t predict that I would be attending so many court-hearings, whether it be to stop the Anti-Sharia bill from passing in Tennessee, or for our equal right to have a place of worship.
Furthermore, beyond the societal aspect, I underestimated how all of this would in turn affect me on a personal and psychological level. Thus, something that had been a personal coping mechanism became a struggle in itself and became a life-long battle for equality and justice, with me as the casualty; injured and hurt, but not broken.
Psychologically, I am ever-more persistent, my cause ever-more clear. I have developed anxiety, and sometimes that hinders my ability to voice my thoughts and opinions and advocate for what I stand for. The positive religious coping method I had chosen to use to deal with anxiety of the past instead led to another form of anxiety; an anxiety produced by an attack on my identity and on the way I choose to live my life.
Research done by Mona M. Amer, PhD reveals the impact 9/11 had on Muslim-Americans’ well-being. What they have found is anxiety, depression and even post-traumatic stress disorder among a population some call doubly traumatized—first by the attacks themselves and then by the finger-pointing that followed. But they’ve also found effective coping and resilience, especially among young Muslim Americans. According to a study published in the Journal of Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, a quarter reported moderate to severe anxiety as a result of racial profiling and discrimination. These results are especially striking, given that admitting to mental health problems is generally considered taboo in Muslim culture.
However, despite the anxiety and the prejudice, I, more than ever, take advantage of my position in society as an opportunity to educate. I am a hyphenated identity and am content with that; I have a strong sense of American-ness, and I think that gives me resilience. My own experiences and analyses have caused me to be persistent and to expand my cause, going beyond just my race and religion, standing for equality and justice in every form, for every country, for everyone.
Written by Dina El-Rifai