To my classmates: Thank you, from the girl with the hijab

A Muslim student’s swan song to her high school

I was born in the back of a traveling caravan, in the desert heat of Al Raeda, a small trading village just a camel-ride from Yemen’s capital. My father, Muhammad Abdul Rahman al-Jabbar bin Omar, decided last year to rip us from the only culture we’d ever known and bring us here. It was difficult to learn the Americans’ customs and language; I still struggle sometimes.

Kidding. I was born in (a hospital in) Canada. I’ve never actually stepped foot outside this continent, and English is actually my first language, though my name may hint otherwise. My headscarf probably doesn’t help combat that misconception.

I started wearing the Islamic headscarf – or hijab, in Arabic – when I was 9. To preempt the inevitable question: my father did not force me to wear it. In fact, he had little to do with the decision. But who can blame anyone for thinking he did?

When a mini-9/11 flashes across the screen every time you flip the channel, we’re naturally bound to want to blame someone. And who better than The Muslim, the turban-clad, bearded man with nine veiled wives? (Myth, by the way.)

So while I can’t blame anyone, I’m grateful that not everyone falls for this. Most take the time to ask questions. Some eye me from a distance, like I’m a specimen from a traveling exhibit. Others are too intimidated to do even that. I don’t really mind.

My parents had warned my siblings and me that such vitriol would be thrown at us….but by now I’ve grown a thicker skin.

It’s the hostility that’s overwhelming. During my first week of middle school, a group of tall, laughing eighth graders passed me in the hall. “Get your Muslim ass out of here,” one boy said, much to the amusement of the others.

It was the first time anyone had cursed in front of me.

My little sister, who loved tying colorful scarves around her head as a child, was 8 when she first encountered a similar situation. She was on the swings at a back-to-school picnic, red scarf flying out behind her in the air, when a classmate’s teenaged brother yelled, “Terrorist!”

The day after Osama bin Laden’s death was announced, I learned a new slur the hard way: a stranger stood behind me in the crush surrounding the middle staircase and decided to amuse himself by flicking the back of my backpack repeatedly, loudly pronouncing me a “sand nigger” with each flick.

When I went home, I looked the phrase up on Urban Dictionary. I wouldn’t advise you to do the same.

My parents had warned my siblings and me that such vitriol would be thrown at us. I wish for my brothers’ and sisters’ sake that they weren’t right, but by now I’ve grown a thicker skin. I’ve learned to shrug things off.

Illustration by xgthox

Because this time next year, I’ll be finishing up my second semester at the University of Maryland, where you won’t be able get away with calling me “the girl with the head thing” because you can’t figure out how to pronounce my name.

There, a girl in a headscarf is a dime a dozen. There are herds of us drifting across the campus at any given time.

I’m graduating. I’m walking out of most of your lives. I’ve grown stronger just by having met you, and I like to think you got something out it as well. While I’m hardly the first hijabi to walk these halls, I’ve somehow managed to be the first many of you have seen outside grim news reports of bombings in Pakistan.

Maybe seeing me from afar wasn’t enough to change your perspectives. But I’ve at least left my mark on the class of 2013 – just take a look at the winners of the senior superlative for Best Hair.

Yeah, it’s me. And, no, I didn’t take offense. I laughed harder than any of you.

A shorter version of this was published in my high school newspaper, The Griffin. Some weeks later, the paper’s sports editor tweeted me saying that my best hair superlative was nearly on Reddit’s front page. Some of the comments are telling.

Follow me on Twitter @ayshabkhan.