This woman was a certain customer.
She was white; with expensive, unadorned athleisure clothes, nails tipped with a French manicure, and soft skin.
The customer, Kiley, entered the San Jose, CA, Target pharmacy past closing, already irate Hala wouldn’t stay open late for her when she called on the phone. Earlier that year, Trump had announced his presidential bid.
As soon as she got to the counter, Kiley exploded. “You know what honey, there are some people in this world who don’t believe in the same God as us, don’t have the same values as us, and don’t treat people the same way,” she said to her young son.
“Are you really going to be racist like that?” Hala asked.
“Well I just heard you say Allahu Baba.”
At this point, there were several things Hala could have said.
It’s Allahu Akbar, get your stereotypes right.
Excuse you, I don’t speak gibberish.
Allahu Baba (or rather Akbar) is not some kind of spell Muslims cast under their breath. It’s the start of the moment of greatest peace — the call to prayer.
Instead, she said nothing at all.
Refusing to instigate further, Hala rang up the purchase. As soon as the customer left, she shut the gate and began to cry.
This was not the first encounter Hala had with prejudice, but it was the most vicious. Working in healthcare for nearly a decade, she had an idea why.
“Certain people think their healthcare provider should be educated and capable of taking care of their health, probably someone who is white,” Hala said. “It’s such a delicate relationship. You are divulging your protected, private information and there are just some people who don’t want that person to be non-white.”
As a first-generation Muslim-Pakistani American who wore her faith so publicly, Hala didn’t fit the bill. She fit the ban.
Two years later, scarred by the start of what would be a relentless string of anti-Muslim incidents, Hala took off her hijab. She had been wearing it for 21 years.
* * *
“To be hijabi in America is to go around with a target on your head.”
To be hijabi in America is to go around with a target on your head.
Since Trump’s presidency, this has gotten worse: anti-Muslim bias incidents rose by 17 percent in 2017, with a 15 percent increase in hate crimes, according to CAIR’s latest report; the year before that it was 57 percent and 44 percent, respectively.
Following the Target incident, Hala just wished people would stop fixating on her appearance. “The point of hijab is not to be in everyone’s face all the time. It’s not to be singled out. The essence is to be modest.” But with Trump in power, everyone it seemed, whether they found her hijab to be odd, oppressive, beautiful or devotional, had something to say.
“The point of hijab is not to be in everyone’s face all the time. It’s not to be singled out. The essence is to be modest.”
“Having that much attention for the way I looked was overwhelming,” said Hala. “After all these incidents, I became anxious. It takes a hold of your brain and you start to wonder, does everyone hate me?”
Women came up to her, at the theater, at the store, to say, “Your headdress. That’s really nice” or “that beautiful thing on your head; I just love it” but “there were a subset of people who went of their way to say negative things [to me] because Trump has made it okay to express yourself as a racist person. He has affirmed it.”
Under Hala’s anxiety lies trauma that strangers don’t see. When people harassed her, they assumed they knew her, and her story. But they didn’t. And when they approached her, they had no idea of the power of their words, and that what they said would ultimately lead her to remove her headscarf.
For Hala, her trauma started when she wore hijab before she was ready.
One afternoon, her mother — her Ami — said to her, “You’re going to have to wear hijab soon.”
No, I’m not, Hala thought.
Hala wanted to wear hijab, just not now. She planned to do it later, perhaps in college.
But less than a year later when she was twelve, Ami handed her a thin white piece of cotton. Hala was a quiet kid. Obedient. She put it on.
Though she had reservations, it was in high school where she grew up in New York state that she started to voice them. At a few parties, she took off her hijab. Her classmates didn’t say anything — knowing it was her, but not quite her. Her own doppelganger.
But soon, the gig was up. One night, she got home to her mom and brother waiting at the door. He was the first to speak.
“If you wear hijab, wear it the right way, or don’t wear it at all,” he said. Emboldened by her tiny rebellion and still-festive party mood, she said, “I don’t want to wear it at all.”
“There’s no choice,” her mother replied.
Hala’s bluster dropped; her hijab-less doppelganger vanished. She never pulled a stunt like that again.
A few seasons later meant the end of high school. Prom, graduation, senior class trip; like many Muslims, Hala was not going to prom. Instead, she focused on what was ahead. She had gotten into an Ivy League and planned to major in biology; her sights set on med school.
But thoughts of her future were dismantled by another explosive conversation with her mother. After a particularly grueling day at school, Hala threw herself on the bed, her backpack still on like a turtle shell, when Ami casually walked into her room and said, “Oh, you know, so and so sent a [marriage] proposal, so we accepted.”
This man was 30. Hala was 17.
She knew of him, saw him at family parties, occasionally exchanged words with him, but she had absolutely no interest in marrying him. At such a young age, she had no interest in marrying anyone.
If Hala was at a loss for fighting words before, they found her now. She sprung up from the mattress.
“What do you mean ‘No’?”
“NO,” she repeated forcefully.
What Ami was doing, for the sake of religion, went against the foundation of Islam. In the Quran, it states “There shall be no coercion in matters of faith” (Surah Al-Baqarah, verse 256). She and Ami had talked about med school, her career, but never once — marriage. Ami had gotten married at age 26, after studying political science in college. Her father was in his 30s and had his pharmacy license. They didn’t come from a place where forced marriage was the norm.
This time, Hala spoke up.
The next day and every day following, she trailed her mother around and said “NO, NO, NO.”
She turned to her father for help, but he was just as resolute. “If Ami says something about the kids, then my dad’s 100 percent for it,” Hala said. “I cried to both of them and he was equally as heartless…‘Stop whining,’ he’d say to me. ‘This is how it is.’ ”
Nine months later, against her constant remonstrations, she got married.
She had just turned 18.
“What Ami was doing, for the sake of religion, went against the foundation of Islam.”
During the wedding ceremony in her home, men and women were in separate rooms. She was with the women, sitting by herself, when she heard the imam in the next room ask if she accepted this marriage. Islamic law dictates the woman must answer herself, but her father, on her behalf, said yes. She said nothing. An auntie brought the marriage contract for her to sign and Hala thought to herself, I don’t want to sign this form. What would happen if I didn’t sign it?
But the problem with absolute fealty is that it’s a difficult habit to break. There was a party, Hala parents’ friends were there, she didn’t want to cause a scene.
She signed the contract.
Hala tried to think about why Ami was so controlling. “For her, God is something more to be feared. She is a puritan. It’s principles first, family second — even if you love your kids. That’s the way she grew up; her parents made all the decisions for them, and that was the model for her parenting.”
After her marriage, Hala was able to find solace in education. She and her ‘husband’ lived apart; he lived in Texas for a fellowship while she moved into a college dorm.
That fall, amid the rolling hills and blue lakes of her Ivy League New York school, she took (and aced) her organic chemistry and physics classes. She made friends — best friends — and tried to forget. She immersed herself with Muslims who were eager to question and study Islam, and for the first time, wanted to wear hijab for herself.
But Hala knew she lived a double life. At school, she was an easy-going, friendly student. But when she visited her parents at home, she shrunk back into the girl who lived for them. Upon her engagement, she contemplated suicide, and now, it was all she thought about.
Ironically, her ‘husband’ was opposed to hijab and asked her to take it off. He wanted a “pretty wife.” For once, Hala disagreed.
This all came to a head during her junior year of college, on the night of her wedding reception, timed during her winter break and held in Pakistan. Up until this point, she and her ‘husband’ hadn’t moved beyond kissing. This night would change all that.
In the hotel room after the reception was over, she took a shower to calm herself down. She then sat down on the bed, as far away from him as possible. He reached for her face and her first instinct was to back away, repulsed.
“I’m going to divorce myself from my body and be like a dead person — a dead log, laying there,” she said.
But as his advances grew bolder, she recoiled, and he got the hint. “What if I just force myself on you,” he said.
“Well that’s rape.”
His hand dropped by his side.
They spent the rest of their wedding night that way — silent, at the far corners of the bed, flesh bound by her inner mutiny that refused to hollow.
The next morning, her relatives came to visit, a common wedding custom to see how the virgin bride had fared. She was evasive.
They spent the rest of the week attending gatherings thrown for them as a new couple; in Pakistan at that time, it wasn’t common to go on a honeymoon.
When the week was up, Hala flew back but dutifully visited him again during her spring break. It was there, that things unraveled. One night, he put a pillow over her face pretending to suffocate her, born from his fondness for horror movies, he said. She squirmed under the pillow’s weight until he lifted it and she gasped for air.
A few nights later, he reached for her in bed but this time, unlike her reception night, she couldn’t play dead again.
“You hate me,” he said to her. “You don’t even like me.”
He started to cry. She stayed silent knowing it was true.
The next day, he called his mom.
“Why doesn’t she even want to have sex with her own husband? She must be having sex with other men” her mother-in-law said to Hala’s parents over the phone. This started a feud and quickly after that, any kinship between the families dissolved. Through a clash of egos with her as a pawn, she found herself, after being married for nearly four years, divorced at age 21.
But standing in the rubble, she was thrilled. Somehow, she had gotten what she wanted.
Upon graduation, Hala continued with her own plans of graduate school and headed west to San Francisco, in search of freedom. It was 2006. After everything she had gone through, she thought about removing the last force of control her mother had. Hala said, “I’m moving to California. No one knows me. I could take off my scarf. I could just do it right now…But I considered my divorce to be a miracle. And if God can give me such a miracle, then this is the least I could do for Him.”
One weekend, she went to a sexual abuse and domestic violence seminar put on by the school. On stage, an older woman recounted being raped at a high school party.
Coming home from the last night of the seminar, she felt a release, triggered by memories of her ex. Her first response was to weep, which she did for two days straight, until finally, one sparkling moment, she stopped.
I can move on from this, she thought.
During their time apart, from a physical and spatial separation, sprung Ami’s repentance. “I know my mom feels deeply regretful for what she did. She changed after that and didn’t try to control our lives. And for that reason, I have forgiven my parents.” But it was complicated. The same woman who slowly saved money to buy dental chairs for a free clinic in Pakistan and gifted Hala newlywed furniture also refused to own up to her mistakes.
“I’ve told her multiple times that what she’s done was forbidden in Islam and is sinful. Sometimes she won’t agree and says, ‘You could have been just been obedient and said ‘Yes.’
Hala spoke to me on condition that names and select physical descriptions be changed out of respect for her family and HIPAA code. Like many Muslims, her first instinct is to hide what makes her parents look bad, not offer it for public exhibition. Though she’s terrified her experience will codify the pervasive, disdainful gaze on Muslim women, she knows she must be true to her experience instead of being weighed down with the pressure of representation.
“She knows she must be true to her experience instead of being weighed down with the pressure of representation.”
“People don’t see [Muslims] as nuanced people with nuanced lives. They just see us as black and white. Just like everyone else, our lives are complicated. Just like everyone else, nothing is black and white; everything is grey in our lives, including our relationship with our religion, our families.”
Post-PhD, Hala began her first full-time job as a scientist at a big biotech company. She was nervous and wanted to make a good impression. Within a few months, it seemed like she was making strides, conducting groundbreaking research, and even presenting at a prestigious conference to much acclaim.
But a few weeks after Trump’s election, one afternoon at work, she ran into an executive who happened to be in a bad mood. It had been a hectic day for her, and her hijab was a physical manifestation of that — slightly disheveled and askew.
The executive said in front of everyone, “How come I can see some of your hair? How much of your hair am I allowed to see? What’s going on right now?” It seemed less of a joke and more of a judgement. Humiliated, she ran into the bathroom to pull herself together.
After such constant, weekly attention, Hala once again began to think about taking off her hijab. For her, hijab was wrapped up in her relationship with her parents and everything they had done. “I’ve always valued my connection to God and I was having a hard time focusing on that. All I was thinking about was my physical look with my headscarf and what people thought of me.”
And after months of thinking, one morning, she went downstairs where her husband and young daughter were having breakfast and told him she was going to stop wearing hijab. He looked at her and said “Okay. It’s your decision. I’m going to support you no matter what you do.”
On the first day Hala went to work without her hijab, she was terrified. She was scheduled to present at a meeting five feet from her office but was too frightened to attend. She told her coworker, “Today is the first day I’m not wearing my headscarf. I’m going to call into the meeting instead.” Her coworker replied, “You know what, I’ll just come over and we’ll call in together.” Most of her coworkers reacted similarly but some were not so kind. One male said: “I barely recognized you.” She laughed it off until he traced back his steps to say, “That was a compliment.”
And the executive who threw her off before? After many conversations about hijab, he became very supportive.
As Hala grapples with her new life, she thinks a lot about the intimate impact strangers left on her. She noticed older women especially, feel more comfortable making small talk with her. “Is it because now they are not questioning whether this person speaks English or is American?”
“I see how it can be perceived that I was oppressed by this headscarf. Am I just validating people by conforming to the rest of society? That worries me because my reason to take it off was not to conform.”
But in the constant fight for civil rights for Muslims and immigrants, the last thing she wants is to lose her identity. “I worry, am I being a total sellout? I see how it can be perceived that I was oppressed by this headscarf. Am I just validating people by conforming to the rest of society? That worries me because my reason to take it off was not to conform.”
It is widely accepted that relationships with parents and life partners affect the way we live our lives, but strangers, coworkers and customers matter as well. People who travel in our peripheral world need to realize their actions have a profound effect. The woman who threatened Hala at Target or the executive with the offhand remark had no idea of the harm their words caused or Hala’s complicated backstory, but if they did — they might have acted differently.
In today’s world — pre and present Trump — let us not add to the trauma that Hala, or any person, bears on their shoulders. Instead, let us walk with the intention to lighten their load or allow them to shine on their own.
* * *
Mahin Ibrahim is a writer whose work has appeared in HuffPost as a contributor, Narratively, and Amaliah. In April 2019, her essay will be published in the anthology Halal If You Hear Me from Haymarket Books. Connect with her @mahinsays on Twitter.