By Shireen Khan
It was evening rush hour in New York City. 42nd St. was packed, and I was hoping I would make the bus. His voice came out of the crowd.
“Take that rag off!”
In my four months of working in New York, that was a first. Actually, that was a first in the seven years since I started wearing a hijab. A lot of people turned to look at me as he shouted those words. I don’t know exactly what I was feeling — some mixture of anger and embarrassment — but I knew I wanted to stop and explain to this man the significance of what he dismissed as a “rag.” He didn’t understand the one thing I cherished most, the thing that I took so much care in making sure I did right — my religion.
It’s second nature to me now, but in the beginning, learning how to put on my hijab was a challenge. I taught myself how to tuck my hair in neatly, where to fasten the safety pin, and what material would best stay put. It is now the thing that people notice first when they see me. As a 23-year-old Muslim woman, I can’t imagine walking out of my house without it.
The explanations for wearing the hijab often start with modesty. But modesty, like religiosity, is relative. Who am I to say that I am more modest than someone else just because I cover my hair? I cover because God commanded it in the Qur’an. Wearing the hijab is first and foremost an act of worship and obedience; after that, it serves to check my modesty.
Other values such as charity, tolerance and respect, are some of the same ones that Muslims, American or not, are taught to uphold in their daily lives. As an American-born Muslim, it’s easy for me to follow these values — just as easy as it is for my husband and his friends to gather together to watch the Super Bowl: just sketch in some beards,
insert a prayer break and delete the alcohol. (The legal drinking age is one American law that Muslims disregard completely — Islam prohibits alcohol consumption, at any age.) Such strict rules, to some, are a sign of extremism, and so are the beards — to some, our five daily prayers are another.
When I was nine years old, my father took a job in Saudi Arabia and moved our family from Virginia to Riyadh. In Saudi Arabia, there was easy access to mosques — almost every street or neighborhood had one. While out shopping, I didn’t have to plan around prayer times: shops closed at each prayer, and we would simply walk over to the closest mosque, pray, then resume our shopping. It’s different in America. When I shop with a friend at a mall in New Jersey, we often find ourselves looking for a place to pray. We prefer quiet, secluded areas, but sometimes we have to resort to the fitting rooms. We carry outfits into separate stalls and pretend to try them on. When I finish praying, I ask my friend “Are you done?” Yes, she answers, but now she wants to try on the clothes, and more often than not, we actually end up leaving the store with a new pair of something.
Prayer is one of the five basic pillars of Islam. “Everyone prays,” my husband says. People innately want to call out to God. We all do it, in different ways. By missing my prayers, I would be shrugging off one of the most important, yet basic, obligations of my faith — being observant of it doesn’t make me less “American.”
So as I continued my walk to the Port Authority bus terminal that day, it might have seemed like I didn’t hear that man yell what he did. But I did. I just chose to ignore it. I figured it wasn’t the right time to have a discussion, so I just let it pass. I have rarely been bothered by anybody about my hijab. If anything, I often get complimented on it.
I may cover my hair for the sake of God, but I love getting it cut and styled. I have a husband who can’t understand how I spend so much time at the mall; I have big dreams for work; I play sports; I love to run. I cringe at the word extremist. And I thank God that I am both Muslim and American at the same time.
Shireen Khan is a producer for Time.com