I stood staring at myself in the mirror, carefully wrapping my headscarf around my hair. The image stared back at me, clear as water. And that purity made me cringe. I struggle against the tide every day, against the norm of society, to fully embody the image in that mirror. I knew that it would not be as simple as draping a cloth over my head, classifying me as a Muslim. Rather, it would take the reconciliation of two very different elements of nature. I didn’t truly recognize the force of the tides till bigotry recently turned into actions of hate.
On Tuesday, February 10, 23-year-old Deah Shaddy Barakat, his 21-year-old wife Yusor Mohammad, and her 19-year-old sister Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha were murdered near the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill campus by 46-year-old Craig Hicks. Why? Because of their Muslim identity. Just like many of us, these students were young and ambitious. They were innocent and full of dreams and passions. They had much to offer the world.
Thousands attended the funeral to remember the great spirits of the three victims. Deah, Razan and Yusor embodied what it meant to be compassionate, selfless and determined. They used what they had to give back to the community and to those across the world. They are and will always be a shining example for what it means to be a true Muslim. “At the end of the day,” states Sameer Abdel-Khalek, a family friend of Barakat, “It shows the light that persists even in darkness. You can only gauge the darkness by the light; and this light has overtaken the darkness that has befallen us.”
These three may be gone, but their light is still strong. It forces me to once again reflect on my own identity. The first time I laid the scarf on my head, there were no pins to keep it in place. The hijab, like me, was insecure. I can still remember the rapid beatings of wings in my stomach arising from doubts and societal pressures. Like most, I was raised with a standard of living, a standard of behavior and a standard of beauty. It is hard to count how many times I hesitated before finally pinning up my headscarf; I did not know how people would react. I finally became tired of trying to please others to fit in, of concealing my beliefs, and of letting false impressions of my peaceful religion spread.
After laying the cloth on my head, I made sure the two sides were somewhat equal. I struggled with the cloth, tugging the sides, finally reaching what I aimed for. Balance. Balance between the two ends in order to fold one over the other, balance between my religion and society. I was born and raised as an American and was among the first to wear the hijab in my family; it was an unnerving experience. Still today, my peers’ reactions seem to be at both sides of the spectrum. While I deal with mistrust and common misconceptions about Islam, I also find those who are accepting of my difference.
I took the ends, wrapping them around my head, making one layer at a time. The hijab embraced me. Even now, it shows me its deeper purpose as I walk through hallways, garnering curious glances from my peers: it urges individuals to look past my outer beauty and truly acknowledge my personality and morals. It covers me, reminding me of the modest woman I hope to become. My hijab provides me with new confidence and self-respect. And today, rather than attempting to fit in with the crowd, my Muslim identity stands out as a beacon.
As I look deeper at my reflection, I see the faces of those three beautiful lives that were lost. I see Yusor. I see Razan. I see Deah. They were not too different from me. I see my identity in physical form, a constant reminder of my values being gunned down.
Yes, we may continue to face challenges and crash head on into the waves. Yes, we may become overwhelmed by fears and uncertainties. Yes, we may face prejudice. But if you take more than a glance at my hijab and unravel it piece-by-piece, you will find that it is not just cloth. It serves as a symbol for universal solidarity and a call for the end of bigotry.